It's almost impossible to believe it has been 12 years since a weird little Pixar movie called MONSTERS INC. came out and delivered its heartfelt messages about friendship, not being afraid of the unknown, and being passionate about your job, which may be a first for an animated films unless you count the Seven Dwarfs. What surprised me most about this prequel was the complexity of the messages at play. Still very much a film about friendship (this time around, we see the beginning of one), MONSTERS UNIVERSITY features much more interesting themes of embracing what you're good at, even if it's not what others might think of as exciting.
This time around we meet Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) as a teenager who gets accepted into the titular institute of higher education, specifically into its elite Scare Program. As with all great Pixar films, even before we get to the plot, the attention to detail draws your eyes and ears in every direction. Banners and posters around campus, all of activities groups gathered at the center of the school, not to mention the hundreds of new monster varieties we get to take in and examine, sometimes just for a fleeting moment.
Mike understands that the odds are not in his favor to become a certified scarer, but he also knows that he knows more about the art and techniques of scaring than anyone in his class. Not even the school's creepy Dean Hardscrabble (voiced to icy perfection by Helen Mirren) thinks he can make it. In his primary scaring class (taught by Alfred Molina's Professor Knight), he meets James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a legacy and natural scarer who doesn't rely much on book-taught scaring as he does yelling really loud and making a nasty face. This is a style that doesn't sit well with Mike or the instructors, and he ends up doing poorly in the class because he doesn't use a child's documented fears (of thunder, bugs, bears, etc.) as part of his technique. Even the cool scarer fraternity (led by Nathan Fillion's Johnny) rejects him as a pledge when it looks as if Sulley might flunk out.
One of the film's most interesting surprises is how the character of Randall (the villain of MONSTERS INC., voiced by Steve Buscemi, who I believe I heard referred to as "Randy" by characters in this film) is handled. I almost wish there had been more showing his transformation from Mike's would-be best friend to something more selfish and dastardly. First-time feature director Dan Scanlon (who helmed the best of the Cars-related Mater shorts, MATER AND THE GHOSTLIGHT) does a really credible job finding new corners of the familiar characters and showing how traits of the some of the new ones rubbed off on Mike and Sulley to help them become better people.
Among the new characters are another fraternity whose members are the nerdiest monsters of the Scare Program, voiced by the likes of Joel Murray (sounding and looking a lot like a Chicagoan sporting a Ditka-like mustache), Sean Hayes, Dave Foley and Charlie Day. This scrappy little group of social misfits are going to break your heart a little bit, and you'll love them for it. They are the campus losers, but with Mike and Sulley in their ranks, they pull things together to become something, well, better than losesrs.
MU's final third is primarily focused on the school Scare Games—not technically part of the schooling, but still and important part in establishing who the university's best scarers are. And it's for these games that Mike and Sulley finally discover the nature of their friendship and working relationship that will carry them into adulthood. Supported by some great voice work by Aubrey Plaza, John Krazinski and Bill Hader, among others, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY doesn't shy away from tough life lessons. As we know from MONSTERS INC., Mike does not become a scarer, but the way he gets there may not be what you expect; it's wonderfully moving and surprisingly honest.
The best Pixar works (hell, the best movies in general) are those that combine healthy doses of creativity and emotional depth through character development. While not every character in MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is delved into, the ones who need to be are. This is not Pixar's best work, and I'm not sure if these characters are screaming out for another film beyond this one, but I have really enjoyed learning about their fascinating, fantastical, very funny lives. And I think you're going to love this sweet and visually spectacular work.