Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Voiced by: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Aubrey Plaza
Prequels and sequels are risky business when it comes to quality films. There have been great successes, like Toy Story 3, and great misses, like every Pirates movie since the first one. Pixar seems to have lost a smidge of creativity as it's now released its first prequel, Monsters University, a fun ride that just barely misses some of the heart of their iconic Monsters, Inc. After the crash landing that was Cars 2, you'd think they'd stick to original stories. Though this film didn't quite meet the same demise.
In the realm of continuing a story, one key element to making it work is to have the same talent return and Pixar/Disney have done just that, re-teaming Billy Crystal and John Goodman as the voices of Mike Wazowski and James P. "Sulley" Sullivan, respectively. The two beloved monsters were introduced to audiences as best friends in the powerhouse animated film Monsters Inc. In Monsters U we learn the origin of the friendship, which begins as anything but friendly. As freshmen at the highly respected Monsters University School of Scaring, Mike and Sulley are complete opposites. Mike is a bookworm, only interested in learning and studying everything he can. Sulley, on the other hand, is a legacy living in the shoes of his legend father. They both fit the epitome of two college stereotypes, the kid who makes the library his second home and the kid who makes the frat parties his second home. When the two inadvertently fail their first semester scare exam, they find themselves struggling to get their spots in the scare program reinstated. This sets up what becomes a sort-of Revenge of the Nerds scenario with Mike and Sulley joining the laughing stock of the campus fraternity and competing in the annual Scare Games. If they win, they re-enter the program. If they lose, they're off campus in a snap.
It's a fine line between aspects that Pixar has improved upon, such as the quality of the animation. Seamless and beautiful graphics have become Pixar standards and they do not disappoint here. Pixar is also known (most of the time) for their memorable characters. While Mike and Sulley are clearly already loved, there are some new characters that strike an "adorable" chord, but I doubt we'll see huge marketing plugs for these characters like we've seen with Mike and Sulley. The most memorable character to me was the slug-like kid trying to get to class as fast as he can and he only lasts for a one minute sight gag. That's not to say the characters aren't hilarious or entertaining. The "lame" fraternity guys have their own quirks that brought lots of laughs throughout.
The voice work is stellar, with a supporting cast including Aubrey Plaza (delivering her usual deadpan comedy), Steve Buscemi (as a younger version of the Monsters Inc. villain Randall), and Helen Mirren (as the snarky Dean Hardscrabble). Mirren was a twelfth hour choice for the film as the character was originally planned to be male, not female. It works better this way. Mirren has a certain calm about her demands as the school's disciplinarian. When she seems to take Mike and Sulley's mistakes rather well it's hard to tell if we're supposed to breathe easy or if this means there's something scarier coming up ahead.
The storyline is my only negative here. Where Monsters Inc. delivered a fresh, original, and complete story, Monsters University relies too heavily on sight gags and one-liners. The heart of the original is lost in this attempt. Again, that's not to say this isn't still a well-rounded animated film. There's plenty of comedy and memorable moments. As a complete package, though, it feels more like an episode of the characters' lives instead of a compelling story. Who can forget the tragic, but incredible, scene in Monsters Inc. when Sulley revisits Boo's bedroom, hearing her say, "Kitty!" Monsters University never reaching that level of storytelling.
If you're looking for a family film worth your time, Monsters University is a much better choice than some of the others out there. The kids in the audience seemed to really enjoy it, cackling loudly for minutes after a funny moment. And don't miss the great short film The Blue Umbrella before the film starts.
Runtime: 110 minutes