Of Pixar Animation’s many truly great features, my favorite has always been 2001’s Monsters Inc. I love the story, I love the characters, and most of all, I love the world. The imagined monsters’ metropolis (aptly, Monstropolis) created by director Pete Docter and his team (Pixar films, more than perhaps any others in the industry, are really collaborative works) presented huge potential for expansion.
I’m a sucker for detailed world-building; the mundane intricacies of a dimension inhabited by well-meaning monsters fascinate me. So, while I don’t necessarily think the story lends itself to a direct follow-up, I’ve liked the idea of a return visit to that world.
Monsters University, this time directed by Dan Scanlon, gives us that opportunity to explore Monstropolis again, via a prequel focusing on the genesis of the friendship that served as the backbone of the original film. Maybe it isn’t a story that absolutely needs to be told – Mike and Sulley’s arc always felt pretty complete – but it makes for a pretty fun movie.
Young Mike Wasowski (Billy Crystal) grew up hoping to one day become a scarer. Sure, he’s small and unimposing – not exactly frightening – but he knows hard work will prevail. He enrolls at Monsters University, which houses the preeminent scaring college. He studies hard, aces his scaring theory exams, and seems to be well on his way towards a promising career. Jim Sullivan (John Goodman), on the other hand, is the entitled son of a scaring legend. He focuses his time on college’s social offerings, believing he can coast through his academic career, relying on his traditionally scary appearance and more than a little nepotism.
Needless to say, the two do not get along.
A botched final practical exam, however, results in both their expulsions from the scaring program. They’re allowed to remain at MU, but have to settle for dorky science majors, serving a big hit to Mike’s academic and Sulley’s social aspirations. Luckily, the annual Scare Games present a (very unlikely) opportunity for the two to reenter the scare school – the stern department head, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), agrees to reenroll them if they can lead a team to victory in a series of challenges designed to prove one’s scaring abilities.
It’s a familiar plot and, sure, it’s not as ambitious or emotionally resonant as the film I fell in love with twelve years ago (nothing about the inevitable birth of Mike and Sulley’s friendship comes anything close to as touching as Sulley’s transformation from nightmare-to-nurturer in Monsters Inc.) and it doesn’t transcend genre the way film’s like The Incredibles, Up, or WALL-E do, but it’s perfectly entertaining family faire.
Monsters University’s success is far less reliant on a compelling narrative than it is on just being genuinely funny. It’s a genre exercise, using the loose framework of “geeks having to beat the jocks at their own game” to parody the college-movie subcategory. The small monster-related subtleties to familiar tropes are delightful and the deep, deep well of dynamic supporting characters (including awesome voice-work from Charlie Day and Nathan Fillion(!), among others) are more than enough to carry the light story along. Most of the gags land and more than a few land hard, resulting in a fast-paced, witty summer comedy.