It’s great to see Michael “Mike” Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan back together again in “Monster’s University.” Although it’s been over ten years since “Monsters, Inc.” came out in theaters, it doesn’t feel like they have been away from us all that long. Now I’m not just saying that because Pixar released the 3D version of it last Christmas; the best Pixar movies move us not just with their amazing visuals, but with characters who are more human than they seem. Mike and Sulley are perfect examples of this because, while they are monsters, their desires are no different from our own, and that’s why we keep these two in our hearts as the years go by.
“Monsters University” is a prequel which takes us back to when Mike and Sulley first met one another in college, and it turns out that they were not the best of friends. While Mike is a very book-smart student who is intent on memorizing all the scares one needs to learn, Sulley is confident that his mighty roar will be all he needs to become the best scarer at Monsters University. As a result, a rivalry develops between them to where they end up destroying an important artifact, and this ends up getting both of them expelled from MU’s scaring program. But both are fiercely determined to become scarers at Monsters, Inc., so they end up participating in the Scare Games with the intent to win and be let back into the scaring program.
Now “Monsters University” is essentially a college comedy in the vein of “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” and it’s as G-rated as college comedies will ever get. The story isn’t all that original as it has Mike and Sully joining up with Oozma Kappa, the college fraternity that doesn’t look to stand a chance at the Scare Games because all its members are misfits who don’t fit in with the “popular” crowd. As these characters endure a number of physical challenges that test their scaring abilities, we know that Oozma Kappa will end up surprising the other fraternities in a way they couldn’t have expected.
However, the movie’s last half is a reminder of how clever Pixar is in telling stories. Just when you think you know how the plot is going to play out, it changes course in a way that’s unpredictable and gives everything in the movie a deeper meaning. There’s a very moving moment in which we see Mike sitting by a lake and contemplating the future he thought he was all set for. This scene almost moved me to tears as it deals with the dreams we all have and how heartbreaking it can be for them to be out of our grasp.
Billy Crystal and John Goodman slip into the roles of Mike and Sully like they never left them, and both work brilliantly off of each other. I’m also glad to see that their age means nothing when it came to portraying these characters as college students. You can tell that they are having a blast revisiting these characters, and their enthusiasm in voicing them is contagious.
There are also some new characters worth noting in “Monsters University” and among them is Dean Hardscrabble, the headmistress of the school, who is voiced by none other than Helen Mirren. Hardscrabble is merciless on Mike and Sully as she sets down strict guidelines for them and the rest of the students, and only Mirren can make a condescending educator sound as sexy as she does. Even as she reminds you of all the mean teachers you had the misfortune of being taught by when you were young, I bet none of them sounded as alluring as Mirren does here.
There’s a whole other bunch of actors who disappear into the characters they play here, and I’ll leave you to discover who they are. It is nice to see a few familiar faces here though like Randall Boggs who’s once again voiced by the great Steve Buscemi. This time Randall is not the villain we all loved to hate in “Monsters, Inc.,” but instead just a shy monster who, like Mike, is looking to fit in at the university anyway he can.
Now my big issue with prequels is that the filmmakers can get so caught up in trying to put all pieces together to make it fit with the original that the story becomes predictable, and they can end up telegraphing certain moments far sooner than they should (or maybe they shouldn’t). Pixar, however, doesn’t make that same mistake with “Monsters University,” and the filmmakers are more interested in keeping you involved in this movie than in wondering if everything fits perfectly in the “Monsters, Inc.” timeline.
People keep wondering if Pixar has lost its way in recent years as the general consensus is that their last few movies didn’t quite rise to the company’s usual level of brilliance. But even at their weakest, Pixar films have much more to offer than the average summer blockbuster, especially in the realm of imagination. “Monsters University” doesn’t break any new ground, but it is very entertaining for kids and their parents, and it does have a lot of heart. Whether or not you think this film is as good as the original or for that matter “WALL-E,” “Up” or “Toy Story,” you’re going to really enjoy it all the same.
I do have to end this review by talking about the movie’s opening which has Mike Wazowski as a young boy going on a field trip with his classmates to Monsters, Inc. Watching the wonder in his eye as he ventures into one of those closet doors quickly reminded me of how I come to watch all the Pixar movies; with a great deal of amazement and fascination. Like Mike, I want to see what goes on behind the door and to go for my dream with an immense passion. Realizing that made watching “Monsters University” all the more worthwhile.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
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