Monsters, Inc. was a pretty great movie, and in 2001 it showed that Pixar had more greatness in it than Toy Story. But after watching it, weren’t you overwhelmed with curiosity about where and how Mike and Sulley met and struck up their friendship? No? well, neither was I. But evidently someone was, so after priming the pump with a 3-D re-release of Monsters, Inc. we get a prequel, Monsters University, to explain exactly that. And it’s cute, but ultimately not as inspired as the original.
It does have the confidence to violate the prime directive of prequels and sequels. Normally the writer is compelled to burn some number of pages rebuilding the world for those who may not have seen the original, but I suppose with Monsters, Inc. DVDs currently flooding the market it’s easy enough to catch up with the premise. To wit: things that go bump in the night occupy a parallel existence to ours, and the terrified screams of little human kids are actually their primary source of power. Specially trained “scarers” enter our world to frighten children, collect the energy, and get out quickly. After all, everyone knows that kids — like all concentrated sources of power — are a form of toxic waste.
So where does an adolescent monster with a dream go to become a scarer? Well, to college of course; do you think there’s room in this economy to work your way up from the mailroom anymore? Some go to Fear Tech, but for a young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) it’s the scaring major at Monsters University, all the way. In accordance with the prequel rule of opposites, he strikes up a friendship with his freshman roommate, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), and a rivalry with the Big Monster On Campus, James P. Sullivan (John Goodman).
It’s a dynamic we’ve seen before in college movies back to Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Back to School: the scrappy outsider struggling not only against the child of privilege, but against the system that declares him an outsider, here personified by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). But the twist is that both Mike and Sulley are at risk of failing out of the scaring program. Their only hope is the Scare Games organized by the Greek Council (Aubrey Plaza and Tyler Labine).
But to participate in the Scare Games, Mike and Sulley need a fraternity, and the only one that will have them is Monsters University’s equivalent of the Tri-Lambs: Oozma Kappa, currently populated by the middle-aged octopus monster Don Carlton (Joel Murray), the two-headed Terri and Terry Perry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), the furry tube Art (Charlie Day), and the squishy, five-eyed pushover Scott Squibbles (Peter Sohn). The frat house is actually Scott’s house, and the house mother Scott’s embarrassing own (Julia Sweeney).
Everything is set for the games to play out more or less as you’d expect, with Mike and Sulley learning to work with each other and with their awkward compatriots to lead the team of unlikelies to victory over the Roar Omega Roars and their smug president (a perfectly-cast Nathan Fillion).
All of the events are centered around the occupation of scaring, but there’s relatively little time actually spent in the human world, which is sort of for the better. The human animation has gotten a lot better since the days of Boo, and what kids we do get a glimpse of land right in the uncanny valley, managing to look scarier than the relatively cuddly monsters.
The downside is that with little real interaction with the human world there’s little to distinguish Monsters University from any other college comedy, albeit with a monstery look and feel. It’s cute and sweet, and a fine distraction for all those out-of-school kids, but it’s ultimately a pale imitation of Pixar’s best.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.