As adults who still love a dash of whimsy in their entertainment Disney/Pixar films have been a happy addition to the round of animated films that usually make up our Summer family-movie picks. The original Monsters Inc., released twelve years ago in 2001, has been an absolute staple in our house and a huge asset when dealing with kids who were scared of the monster under the bed. The world created in Monsters Inc. was not only exceptionally imaginative, it also took the bogeyman trope- recognizable in a multitude of cultures- and wrapped a wonderful story around it. That's no small feat of storytelling.
So news of a prequel was something to get excited about.
Monsters University goes back in time to when Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman), the heroes of the original story, met in college. Both attend the Scare School at Monsters University (MU) but their individual approaches to their studies vary greatly. Mike has had dreams of being a Scarer ever since he visited Monsters Inc. on a school field trip as a child. He's not a scary monster but he wants to succeed more than any other monster in the school and he works hard to prove his worth. Sully, on the other hand, is naturally scary but a lazy student.
The two don't like each other initially and their rivalry causes them both to be expelled from the Scare program. Mike, never one to give up, schemes to be readmitted to the school by entering The Scare Games, a competition between rival fraternities, and even gets the terrifying head of the school, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), to agree that his fraternity can be readmitted if they win the competition. Sully, seeing an opportunity to get back into the school, joins Mike in an uneasy alliance.
Oozma Kappa, the fraternity that Mike and Sully are forced to join in order to enter The Scare Games, is populated by the misfits of MU. They're sweet and not monstrous at all, so Mike has a real challenge to get them prepared for the games. The movie finds its heart in these moments and has a lot of good lessons for kids about teamwork and having a good work ethic while not trying to force something that isn't meant to be.
Monsters University is an undeniably cute film and it's hard to imagine that anyone who loved Monsters Inc. wouldn't enjoy watching it. However the novelty of monsters that enter the human world to harvest the screams of children as energy for their world doesn't really exist anymore and there doesn't appear to be a new revelations to offer. It's been said by many other critics that Pixar played it safe when they made Monsters University and after seeing the movie I tend to agree. The success of movies like Monsters Inc. and Cars nearly guarantees the success of the sequel even if they don't rise to the level of the original and, in my opinion, the only Pixar film sequels that have thus far outdone themselves have been part of the Toy Story franchise; which is a shame when you consider that there is no limit to what can be done with the kind of animation Pixar is famous for and yet they spend so much time on sequels.
Monsters University does succeed on many levels. The humor is the kind that appeals to kids and parents alike and the story never even tries to veer into PG territory. The visual effects are, as always, amazing and there are a few moments that make you feel like you're looking at a window into another world. The film may not have any major "wow" moments but it's still unquestionably better than half the fare currently playing at the theater and well worth the price of admission.