The most impressive attribute about Monsters University, besides its wit and vibrant animation, is its choice to not use nostalgia as a crutch to help connect movie goers – young and old – to the characters they loved in Pixar’s predecessor.
Instead, the film uses two main tactics Monsters Inc. utilized to develop excitement and compassion. Those two ingredients are imagination and heart.
The campus life of Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan is fleshed out into a full-fledged dreamscape with recognizable elements. Aspiring scarers may range in size and cuddliness, but they still like to play frisbee, collect trading cards of their heroes, and pull pranks. Those who saw Monsters Inc. in 2001 are going to find the mixture of child-like innocence and the story of reaching for the stars as pleasant bookends for themselves and for Pixar’s creations.
The movie rarely uses those type of laughs that call on an the audience to remember the first film in order to “get” inside jokes. Director Dan Scanlon has made sure to keep in-jokes in the background while new sight gags and funny banter between Mike and Sulley take the forefront. Also, knowing exactly where these two end up is inevitable, but never takes the wind out of Monsters University’s sails. You get so wrapped up in the eventfulness, that you forget Monsters University is a prequel; you buy it as its own product.
I also admired that this film focused more on Billy Crystal’s Mike. Whereas Monsters Inc. focused on Sulley’s relationship with the loveable Boo, Monsters University focuses on Mike’s aspirations to become a professional scarer and work at Monsters Inc. This character shift is a much better adjustment compared to how Pixar attempted this with Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater the Tow Truck in the abominable Cars 2. Here, Mike’s shyness and assertiveness is addressed and stabilized. We better understand Mike and are able to invest in his goal reaching. When Mike hits bumps along the way, our heart sinks for him – but, again, the wind behind those sails never vanishes.
The animators behind Monsters University have done a terrific job at aging our lead characters. Mike and Sulley look appropriately younger and add a new life to these otherwise well known surreal leads. It’s also important to note that Crystal and John Goodman have done an equally outstanding job at capturing the same energy they provided more than a decade ago to their animated pals.
The rest of the cast fills out with other familiar faces such as a much kinder Randal (played by Steve Buscemi) and plenty of newbies to go around. Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, and Charlie Day are hilarious and incognito as the friendly frat Oozma Kappa who welcome Mike and Sulley when the gruesome twosome get in trouble with MU’s Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by an appropriately cold Helen Mirren).
Adults and other movie goers accustomed to frat house films will notice Scanlon, along with his co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, treat Monsters University as that usual college flick you’ve seen a dozen times. This means that there’s the occasional blurred line between what’s meant as an original movie for kids and what is being spoofed for older patrons. Maybe it’s a little of column A and B. Nonetheless, the results are easily endearing and highly entertaining as we root for the underdogs in this battle for a fraternal trophy. Think Revenge of the Nerds with a slight peppering of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The only time I felt unsteady watching Monsters University – as if I was watching a masterful circus performer lose their footing while crossing the tightrope – was during a final heave-ho during it’s wrap up. It felt like a fourth act was slowly developing onto an ending that was fine and didn’t need additions. However, I was proven wrong. This tension filled finale is chock-full with as much thrills as any chase through a door warehouse and as much heartache as a little girl finding out her cuddly “kitty” could be absolutely frightening.
After devastation as a result of the shameless Cars 2, I’ve been waiting for the brilliant minds at Pixar to surprise me and fulfil my faith. With Monsters University, the team has done so. It’s a great animated film that can easily be a stepping stone to excellence.