It has been nearly twelve years since Monsters Inc. made its theatrical debut, introducing audiences to one of film history’s most imaginative storylines and a memorable duo of lovable Monster protagonists, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). It was Pixar’s fourth feature film and became an instant classic, one that still ranks high up on most people’s “what’s your favorite Pixar film?” list. Because of the place Monsters, Inc. held in our hearts, we all became cautiously optimistic yet filled with trepidation with the announcement of the prequel, Monsters University. We wondered why Pixar would even bother returning to a world that was so perfectly captured in a tightly bound film that had no cause for story extensions. The answer may be shrouded in dollar signs, or, perhaps like Toy Story 2 & 3, the Pixar team just could not abandon these lovable monsters forever. When all was said and done, Monsters University was greenlit and it has now finally arrived. The finished product is a playful “origin” story, filled with substantially more satirical humor rather than original humor, but also showcases a larger cast of lovable characters and genuinely touching moments.
A good percentage of the humor comes in the form of college satire, from a stroll through campus extra-curricular recruitment tables to the equivalent of a noisy frat party. The dialogue is witty and the animation is stellar. The monster character designs are wonderfully varied and vividly colored, each one built to complement their respective personality. And, like all great Pixar films (you know, the ones without talking automobiles), there is a tremendous amount of heart. When a character comes to terms with his or her own weaknesses or the competitive nature of career-building (yes, this is even the case in monster world), the mood is pitch perfect with words courtesy of returning Monsters scribes Robert Baird and Daniel Gersons, and scene construction compliments of Pixar animator/director Dan Scanlon.
While Monsters, Inc. had slightly more focus on Sulley, Monsters University (or MU, in the appropriate collegiate abbreviated manner) tilts the focus to Mike. As a young and adorable one-eyed green ball of energy, Mike yearns to one day be a professional scarer. Despite his lack of scarer talent, he enrolls in the scarer program at MU and very quickly becomes rivals with the naturally gifted wannabe scarer, Sulley, whose father was a legendary scarer. This setup is fun to watch whether you have seen Monsters, Inc. or not. In fact, the entire prequel works very well on its own, with only a couple instances of material that favor audiences with prior knowledge of the characters.
In the scare program, Sulley is sought out by the “jock” scarer fraternity, Roar Omega Roar, led by Johnny Worthington (voiced with perfectly satirical hot-shot charm by Nathan Fillion). The rivalry between the lazy Sulley and know-it-all Mike lands the two of them in trouble with Dean Hardscrabble, the menacing headmistress of the University (voiced by Helen Mirren), who kicks the two out of the scare program. The remainder of the plot unfolds similar to most underdog stories, and for adults, will remind them of Animal House, Old School and even this year’s The Internship. Sulley and Mike, in order to compete in the Scare Games and potentially win themselves a chance at re-entering the scare program, join the band of misfit monsters that make up the fraternity Oozma Kappa (yes, hilariously abbreviated as O.K.). The oddball team competes in the scare games, in which they are tried and tested, called upon to fight their own personal demons and embrace their unique strengths to chase their dreams.
Monsters University has a classic storyline that makes it one of the funniest, even one of the most fun, Pixar feature length films. One catch of being such a fun movie is that the silliness gets in the way of memorable drama, a Pixar staple. It is true that MU doesn’t reach the emotional heights of previous Pixar films. This is not a jab at MU, but rather a way of admitting that audiences should try not to expect Pixar to keep delivering one genre-defining film after another. Sure, MU is really not as good as Ratatouille or Up or Finding Nemo or any of the Toy Story films, but it’s still a solid family film that, in no way, displays a lack of effort or passion…
…and did I mention Nathan Fillion is one of the voice actors? I did? Well, so is Charlie Day.
(Quick final note: MU screenings are accompanied by a beautiful and heart-warming animated short, The Blue Umbrella, that also showcases new animated lighting techniques and a delicate score by Jon Brion)
Monsters University opens in Bay Area theaters today.