Monsters University is Pixar Animation’s prequel to one of its most beloved films, Monsters, Inc. (released back in 2001), and reveals the story behind how that movie’s protagonists Michael “Mike” Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan formed an unbreakable friendship. We begin by learning that Mike (voiced as an adult by Billy Crystal) had a childhood dream of becoming a Scarer, which inspired him to attend the titular college – in hopes of getting the education he needs – and proving he has what it takes to spook human children, alongside the big (monster) boys at M.I.
Problem is, the diminutive Mike has the book-smarts and work ethic, but lacks the terrifying presence that’s necessary to give human kids nightmares; meanwhile, Mike’s fellow student – the big and furry James (John Goodman) – has tons of raw talent and comes from a family of Scarers, but he lacks Mike’s commitment. Who will make the cut, after the highly-accomplished Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) announces that an end-of-semester test will determine which monsters get to stay in the Scarer program?
Even though it doesn’t scale the same artistic heights as its predecessor, Monsters University is yet another quality computer-animated offering from Pixar. The Monsters, Inc. prequel upholds the Pixar tradition – having a well-crafted narrative that incorporates worthwhile lessons for young viewers (while exploring themes that are meaningful for adults) – but stumbles a bit, when it comes to fleshing out the Monsters universe for greater creative expression; that is, without rehashing metaphors or re-treading on territory that was fully-explored by the previous film. Nonetheless, the final result is a cute, funny, and (still pretty) smart prequel story from the animation studio.
Of course, the visuals in Monsters University are second-to-none in the computer animation department. The Pixar animators’ general approach is to make a cartoon universe (and its residents) feel real, which is why they favor tangible details over Impressionistic style. Between the university grounds and buildings on campus, the film’s settings feel alive and breathing, while the assorted monster student body is realized with pleasantly bright colors and careful, yet imaginative, physical designs. 3D viewing isn’t mandatory to properly appreciate the digital imagery, but it does not detract from the animation either. So, you’re fine watching the movie in regular 2D (unless you generally prefer the 3D format when it’s available).
Crystal and Goodman feel right at home in Monsters University, as they bring their tested vocal expressiveness back to voice Mike and Sulley a second time (even as they play different versions of each character). Similarly, there are a number of fun vocal “cameo appearances” by fan-favorites like John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion and Aubrey Plaza as supporting characters, be they Top Scarers or monster riffs on student stereotypes (jocks, goths, etc.). Meanwhile, Helen Mirren and Alfred Molina lend their older and distinguished voices to important members of the M.U. staff, to pleasant effect. Lastly, the members of the scrappy fraternity Oozma Kappa are all quite likable – and playful – takes on college archetypes, including the “mature student” Don (Joel Murray); the two-headed dance major in dual turtlenecks, Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley); the hippie-esque Art (Charlie Day) and the naive Squishy (Peter Sohn), who lives with his wacky mom.
The story and script was put together by first-time feature-length director Dan Scanlon (the Cars short “Mater and the Ghostlight”), alongside co-writers Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson (Monsters, Inc., Cars). Scanlon and company weave in elements and plot points that pay homage to some famous college comedies from the 1970s/80s (Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds), yet the film always manages to not take the conventional route forward, whenever it is presented with the opportunity. That’s important when you consider how many (most?) people watching will have already seen Monsters, Inc. – and therefore have good reason to stay tuned, given the surprising twists and turns that ensue on the way to a known destination.
Thing is, this isn’t really a story that needed to be told in the Monsters world, and that is the main reason for the film’s shortcomings. The Monsters prequel features an intelligent story about the reality of career dreams and how young people try (and fail) to neatly plan out their destinies, but this particular cartoon world doesn’t enhance those ideas as well as it could. Partly (as was mentioned before), that’s because the film tiptoes around repeating themes from Monsters, Inc. (to a fault), but it also has trouble when it comes to smoothly fulfilling its prequel duties (ex. a subplot that introduces Steve Buscemi as young Randall Boggs is important in the grand scheme of things, but completely superfluous to this story). As a result, Monsters University proves to be as spiritually-uplifting and pleasant as Monsters, Inc., but isn’t equally strong as a creative accomplishment – and might not be as well-remembered in the long run.
Fortunately, this prequel is not at all the cheap and empty commercial Pixar cash-in that some have feared (sorry, Cars 2). There’s even a clever self-reflexive moment near the film’s end that calls attention to how, when you think about it, on paper Monsters University sounds like a potential dud; yet, it manages to defy that expectation. That’s because Pixar – even given past missteps and recurring flaws in the studio’s movies – is still focused on great storytelling, even when the studio ends up paying another visit to an established property. Bring on Finding Dory, I say.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the Monsters University trailer:
Monsters University is 110 minutes long and Rated G. Now playing in theaters.