Back in 2001, Monsters, Inc. was Pixar’s fourth feature--and the first not directed by John Lasseter. The comedy-adventure introduced audiences to the nutty monsters James "Sulley" Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, to the ability of CG to create believable fur--and to the exceptional directorial talent of Pete Docter.
Monsters University is set several years before original film, when the Monster world is still fueled by children’s screams. Mike (Billy Crystal) arrives at prestigious Monsters University as the ultimate nerd, complete with retainer. He’s read every book on scaring and collected trading cards of champion scarers. But can his knowledge and enthusiasm make up for his decidedly un-scarey round shape and skinny limbs?
On the first day of class he clashes with Sulley (John Goodman), the scion of a prominent Monster family who moves with the blithe arrogance of a high school quarterback. Sulley believes scaring is something you don't study, you just do—anathema to the bookish Mike. Their conflict leads redoubtable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) to expel them from the scaring program.
To get back in, they must win the all-campus scaring competition. But to enter, they have to belong to a fraternity, and the only one available is the hopelessly out of it Oozma Kappa. Can a band of uncoordinated geeks be remolded into campus champions? Of course they can, with Mike acting as tutor/master sergeant. Even Sulley learns the importance of discipline and planning.
If much of the story is predictable - a kind of Revenge of the Nerds with extra eyes, heads, tentacles and fur - it's still a lot of fun. Director Dan Scanlon and his crew do a great job of spoofing campus life at an old university with buildings and activities steeped in tradition.
The Pixar animators have clearly grown more skillful in the intervening years, and their software has undergone countless improvements. With his prognathous jaw, ursine body and pop eyes, Sulley is obviously a lot of fun to animate. The artists stretch and squash his features and limbs into outrageous poses when he’s scaring someone. But they also get some surprisingly subtle expressions by making tiny adjustments to the lid of Mike’s single eye.
Two underplayed but skillfully choreographed scenes shine as examples of exceptional animation. The audience initially sees reluctant roommates Mike and Sulley banging into each other in their cramped chamber. But as their friendship develops, they learn to move in deftly coordinated ways that suggest daily chores morphing a dance of good feelings. It’s a neat juxtaposition, and whoever animated the second scene deserves a bonus.
Among the new characters, Dean Hardscrabble is suitably icy and intimidating, although her facial features may remind viewers of the Grand Councilwoman in Lilo and Stitch. At Oozma Kappa, two of the monsters steal their part of the show: Scott "Squishy" Squibbles (Pixar director Peter Sohn), who’s so far out of it, he makes Mike look hip, and Terri and Terry Perry (Sean P. Hayes and Dave Foley), a two-headed dancer/sleight of hand magician who understands the importance of misdirection.
Their hijinks are often very funny, but the laughter can’t disguise how thin the underlying story is. Monsters University simply lacks the emotional core that made Monsters Inc. so endearing. Viewers believed in the unexpected but real love Sulley and Boo shared. The friendships forged in the new film ring true, but they don’t pack the same emotional punch.
Those caveats aside, Monsters University proves Pixar’s B+ work still tops most other studios' A game.