MONSTERS INC. was always a middle Pixar movie for me, although I know a few people who rank it very high in their catalog. That’s probably due to the great characterizations in it – ask most Pixar fans and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) probably are pretty high on the list of memorable characters from their films. That’s due to both the writing and the warm nature of the actors playing them.
Therefore, it was inevitable that Pixar would likely return to Mike and Sully and their world, but how? The ending to MONSTERS INC. was pretty definitive in that children’s screams could not match the power of their laughter, and the entire concept of monsters scaring children to power their world no longer applied. So instead of going forward, Pixar went back, creating their first prequel in MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. Prequels, of course, have their own inherent set of problems, not the least of which is that we know how all this ends. We know their collective destinies. The job of a prequel is to make audiences forget the previous movie (or at least only reference it briefly and in an entertaining way), and frankly most prequels aren’t up to the task.
So I was surprised to find that not only does MONSTERS UNIVERSITY succeed in adding another layer to Mike and Sully’s story, but that in many ways it might even be the better film. MONSTERS INC. is bigger in scale, no doubt, and has world-changing repercussions that MONSTERS UNIVERSITY does not, but UNIVERSITY manages to enchant nonetheless, mostly because it invites us into a very realistic and surprising friendship. We know that Mike and Sully will become best buds forever, but the magic of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is that the friendship feels genuine and not something made up simply to forward the plot.
Much of that is due to Billy Crystal and John Goodman, who dive into their roles will all the joy they can muster. Crystal, especially, revels in Mike Wazowski – it’s obvious that this role is one of his very favorites. He brings such youthful enthusiasm to Mike, inspired to attend Monsters University after a fateful day on the Scare Floor during a field trip in kindergarten. Mike is smart, energetic, and passionate about being a monster. Unfortunately, he’s just not scary, and while his roommate Randall (Steve Buscemi) seems to be having an easier time of things, Mike can't seem to make college work for him.
Sully does, though, and Goodman plays him as that jock who always skates by during school, who finds himself challenged when it comes to the brains department. Monsters University is a prestigious school, and Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) will not suffer fools gladly. Eventually, Mike and Sully have to team up with the rejects from fraternity Oozma Kappa to win the Scare Games, Monsters University’s version of the Greek Games, geared to test the best students on scare tactics in the real world. If Mike and Sully lose, they just might be kicked off campus. And the members of Oozma Kappa – older Don Carlton (Joel Murray), twins Terri and Terry Perry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), young and eager Scott “Squishy” Squibbles (Peter Sohn), and space cadet Art (Charlie Day) – don’t inspire much confidence.
Through it all, Sully and Mike must work through their own personal differences – from enemies, to reluctant allies and competitors, to true friendship. We can see where this is going practically from space, but it’s to Dan Scanlon’s, Robert Baird’s, and Daniel Gerson’s credit that they make their relationship feel very real. It’s also due to Crystal and Goodman, who seem to be having a blast playing them again. Sure, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY borrows from every college movie ever made, but it’s done in a loving manner and anyone who has ever seen REVENGE OF THE NERDS or ANIMAL HOUSE will recognize these plot points. It’s an homage, which is a nice way of saying rip-off, but you can also tell that Pixar is having fun with the whole genre. It’s also very telling that Pixar is aware that kids who saw MONSTERS INC. might not be so little anymore, and I like that while MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is a prequel, it’s also grown with its audience. Many kids who saw MONSTERS INC. could very well be going through many of the same life changes being presented here.
That’s one of the themes that MONSTERS UNIVERSITY gets right – that change is something to be embraced, welcomed as the adventure that it means, and not something to be feared. Pixar’s stories, for the most part, always come from a place of real emotion and a sense of reflection. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY has quite a bit to say about the changing nature of relationships as people get older and leave their childhoods behind, and it doesn’t feel preachy in how it does it. “Genuine” is a word I want to use quite a bit here – MONSTERS UNIVERSITY may be on rails, but it never feels that way, especially when it depicts the relationship between Mike and Sully. Yes, you know they’re going to be okay, but the journey getting there is more fascinating and heartfelt than expected.
All the voice acting is uniformly superb, including Mirren as the Dean, who takes what could have been a very clichéd and caricatured role and makes it her own. Nathan Fillion is very funny as the head of the popular fraternity on campus, bringing smarm and wit to Johnny. But Charlie Day steals practically every scene he’s in as Art, the one college guy who probably has hung around campus a bit too long. Most every line he’s given is golden, and I dare not spoil them here; one particular piece of dialogue brought the house down. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is one of the funnier movies of Pixar’s catalog, and Dan Scanlon keeps everything moving at a nice tempo. The Scare Games are particularly fun to watch – my favorite sequence in the movie is the Glow Urchin competition, which is not only funny and full of action, but also gives us some defining character moments.
I wish that the short “The Blue Umbrella” was as charming as MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. Sadly, I think it’s the least effective short in the Pixar catalog, relying too much on whimsy but simply coming off as trite. It’s shot in a photoreal manner (even though it’s completely computer animated) and while it looks interesting for a while, the story just doesn’t have any weight to it. I miss the funny days of Pixar shorts – “Presto” is probably their greatest achievement in that arena, and I hope Pixar gets back to that in a big way. “The Blue Umbrella,” while pretty, doesn’t have much to say.
Not so for MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, which is a very worthy follow-up to MONSTERS INC. If you loved the original, you’ll definitely love this one, and some may even enjoy it more. Although not as big in scale as MONSTERS INC., MONSTERS UNIVERSITY has its own charm and wit about it, and I think it’s a wonderful addition to the Pixar catalog.