Turning back time to see the friendship of Mike and Sulley blossom against the odds, Pixar’s prequel story MONSTERS UNIVERSITY certainly passes the test of light summer entertainment but doesn’t really advance or deepen this continuing tale — not that this will matter much to family audiences just seeking some fun.
Stars Billy Crystal and John Goodman return as Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan respectively, but this time guised as their CG-animated younger selves in this enjoyable but slightly superfluous story that can’t quite live up to the soulful legacy of 2001’s hit MONSTERS, INC. Fun as it is to witness this comical duo before they’re a team and earn their scaring stripes (or polkadots), their mutual struggle to prove themselves as freshman frighteners at Monsters University can’t help but lack some dramatic suspense since we already know they make it to the big time eventually. To Crystal and Goodman’s credit, the two voice actors do a fine job tweaking their voices to play Mike and Sulley’s younger selves, with one-eyed green goblin Mike showing the greater change in his character arc. Sulley’s college-age phase is stifled by his youthful overconfidence in being a scaring all-star, making the previously empathetic furry giant seem lazy and less likable back in the day. Audiences will no doubt want to root Mike on to make the grade, but likely many will simply wish Sulley would finally get with the program and be all he can be, especially since we already know what he becomes.
Veteran Pixar artist Dan Scanlon directs this prequel follow-up film from a script he co-wrote with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird who both contributed to the original MONSTERS, INC. script, and all three successfully recapture the spirit of the 2011 animated blockbuster while expanding its cinematic scope. MU’s campus is crowded with a supporting class of monstermates of every color, shape, viscosity and tentacle-count, which makes for a richer world of kaleidoscopic characters on-screen, though it also tends to sacrifice some emotional intimacy that made the first film so beloved. Filmmakers’ tales of how difficult it was to animate Sully’s flowing fur back in 2001 are old-school issues as the Pixar animators and technical wizards have long since graduated to meet much greater CG challenges. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the innovations of yesteryear made the first MONSTERS film at least feel a little more handcrafted in both character animation and storytelling, where today’s post-graduate mastery of such feats allows the opportunity for bigger and more to expand the scope but not deepen the drama.
The plot sets up Mike and Sulley having to prove themselves worthy to enter MU’s scaring school, with Sulley lazily relying on his family legacy to make the cut and join the prestigious Roar Omega Roar fraternity, the creep de la crème of scaring students on campus. Undersized, monocular Mike has no such family lineage to ease his way into scaring, so the giddy green glob studies his brains out in every spare moment in his quest to be the best. Since not even Sulley believes in Mike’s potential, he is left to join the misfit fraternity Oozma Kappa, which resides off-campus at the doily-draped house of one student’s mother. It is at OK that Mike meets his support group including failed sales monster Don Carlton (voiced by Joel Murray), the quivering “Squishy” Squibbles (Pete Sohn), a furry semi-circle called Art (Charlie Day) and the two-headed contradiction Terri & Terry Perry (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes). This friendship of campus rejects, warm if a bit underdeveloped, enables the very familiar, almost time-worn but utterly Disney disinfected battling frat house plot to ensue with expected results.
The standout new character in MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is the centipedal, bat-winged academic leader, Dean Hardscrabble, expertly voiced by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. She is an imposing figure just in silhouette, let alone up close and menacing as the MU hurdle that Mike and Sulley must clear if they are to even remain students in the School of Scaring. Again, since we know Mike and Sulley’s destinies already, it’s up to Mirren’s acting chops and Pixar’s brilliant technical animation to endow Hardscrabble with the gravitas and steely determination to demand hard work and honesty from her students if they are to graduate. This point is the only real drama-inducing complication that will make audiences wonder if Mike and Sully can actually pull it off. Steve Buscemi does reprise his role as slimy salamander-ish Randy Boggs, but since his beef with the boys only begins in this film, his invisibility-cloaked villainy doesn’t threaten until the later film you’ve already seen.
Whether or not the inevitability of Mike and Sulley’s eventual scaring success undercuts MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, one aspect many viewers might find lacking in this prequel is the heart-tugging humanity that drove MONSTERS, INC. via the scarers’ relationship with little Boo. Even with our favorite feature creatures in attendance and all the scream-powering mythology of Monstropolis in tact, centering the plot on Mike and Sulley learning to scare test dummies instead of human children for most of the film makes the plot literally academic at times. What was a heartfelt story in 2001, as sappy or slightly juvenile as it may have gloriously been, is now followed by a more abstracted tale in 2013, set in a world of ideas and theories and less about feelings. In the monsters’ studies, scaring is now a task and a test, not yet an art — expect to feel differently about it this time.
It’s worth nothing that such analysis may seem like splitting hairs, comparing a good Pixar film to a great one, but such micromanagement of storytelling art has been the animation studio’s calling card in the industry for many years now. Small degrees on or off point accumulate into what an audience takes away overall as the end credits roll. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY gets an A in animation, scenic design and technical wizardry as expected, but their choice of a prequelized plot costs the film a few good marks by not finding a more ingenious, original way to revisit Mike and Sulley: The Early Years and raise the bar even higher for Pixar’s standard of excellence.
FilmEdge.net gives MONSTERS UNIVERSITY 3 ½ stars for a solid, enjoyable effort which still remains an underclassman compared to Pixar masterpieces like TOY STORY 3 and THE INCREDIBLES.
Rated G with a runtime of 110 minutes, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY opens in theaters June 21st.