Twelve years after the award-winning Monsters, Inc. hit theaters, Pixar returns to the candy colored kaleidoscope of the Monster universe with the highly-anticipated prequel: Monsters University. Like any reunion, Monsters University is teeming with old friends, inside jokes, and (sometimes) too-high expectations.
Set roughly ten years before Monsters, Inc., Monsters University reunites much of the original cast, most notably with Billy Crystal and John Goodman returning as the voices of Michael “Mike” Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, along with Steve Buscemi who reprises his role as Mike’s future nemesis/current awkward roommate, Randall Boggs. Monsters University is also stocked with a bevy of colorful new characters including Dean Hardscrabble (a perfectly icy Dame Helen Mirren), Professor Knight (Alfred Molina), Don Carlton (Joel Murray), Terri and Terry Perry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), Squishy Squibbles (Peter Sohn), and Art (Charlie Day), alongside character cameos voiced by Frank Oz, Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, John Krasinski, and more.
Monsters University opens with a young Mike Wazowski on a class trip to the Monsters, Inc. factory. There, he meets his first professional scarer (an alum of M.U.) who inspires Mike to pursue a career in scaring and to attend Monsters University. Flash-forward to the present, Mike’s first day at M.U.—when he takes that initial step onto campus, it is the culmination of years of hard work. The university grounds, meanwhile, are rife with visual gags like gates that resemble the gaping maw of a beast and (literal) garbage for cafeteria food.
As planned, Mike majors in scaring. But even though he has all the book smarts on the topic, it becomes clear that in the big pond of M.U. he’ll need more than facts and flashcards to succeed. Enter Sulley, a naturally gifted monster boasting an impressive pedigree of renowned scarers. Though Sulley has innate talent, he takes it—and school—for granted. This competition, and its underlying clash of nature versus nurture, drives much of the conflict between Mike and Sulley from the moment they first meet. (Note: In the Monsters University timeline, Mike and Sulley meet for the first time in college, glossing over a line of dialogue in Monsters, Inc., which indicated that they’ve known each other since grade school.)
As make-or-break exam time approaches, Mike and Sulley’s rivalry continues to escalate, resulting in an incident that gets them both thrown out of the scaring program. Their only chance to regain entry is to win the University’s illustrious Scare Games (a spiritual mix of the Triwizard Tournament and Double Dare, with just a touch of the Thunderdome for good measure). In order to compete, Mike and Sulley must join forces with each other and the rag-tag group of misfits who make up the outcast Oozma Kappa fraternity.
Though Monsters University is a clear send-up of the college comedy format so popular in the 1980s—complete with mascot theft, party pranks, and nerdy fraternities—many of the tropes that initially come to mind for that genre obviously wouldn’t be appropriate for a G-rated audience. However, given Pixar’s penchant for humor that works on two levels, I was expecting they’d find a way to make those references without being raunchy. Also, given the vaguely 1980s-ish setting, I would have enjoyed more era-based comic nods, like when Squishy’s mom manually advances the film in her pre-digital camera, a sound only recognizable to adults over 30. In most cases though, Monsters University relies primarily on crowd-pleasing slapstick and sight gags, rather than more complex humor.
Like all Pixar films, Monsters University also delivers some important messages behind the laughs—themes like the value of teamwork, perseverance, and integrity in pursuing one’s goals are deftly woven throughout the film. Though the message of acceptance gets a bit muddied by the stereotypical groupings of the rival fraternities and sororities (the jocks, the goths, “The Plastics,” etc.), Monsters University does realistically portray the struggle for achievement. In reaching for their dreams, Mike and Sulley repeatedly encounter obstacles that force them to deviate from their planned paths, and sometimes they even fail. Kids (and their parents) see that not everyone gets a trophy every time, but also that it’s quite all right.
Though it is difficult to avoid comparing Monsters University with Monsters, Inc., as a prequel—and one assumes an intended entry point for new generations of fans—Monsters University works really well. It is a fun (if slightly superficial) family-friendly movie. However, for adult viewers, especially fans of Monsters, Inc., it’s a lot like a college reunion: we’re happy to see all the familiar faces, but at the end of the night, we might leave a little unsatisfied and nostalgic for the past.
- The sweet animated short preceding the movie, The Blue Umbrella, by Saschka Unseld, is the first Pixar film to come out of their technical department (Unseld is a camera and staging artist for the company).
- Stick around for the post-credits. It’s not shawarma, but you’ll like it.
Nancy Lambert found Art’s Mummenschanz-meets-MahnaMahna appearance rather unsettling. When she doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, Nancy is busy writing, cutting down restless draugrs in Skyrim, or putzing around online.