For Pixar to move forward, they apparently had to go back. While the studio has had success both great (Toy Story 2 & 3) and moderate (Cars 2) in building franchises, Monsters University marks their first prequel, but is so fresh and unbeholden to its 2001 predecessor that it feels like a brand new universe. After their remarkable streak of all-ages animated features came to an end with last year’s subpar Brave, this exceptional look at how professional scarers Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James Sullivan (John Goodman) became best friends gets the collective firmly back on track. Smart, fun, and funny with creativity to spare, it’s precisely the film Pixar needs and precisely the right time.
In addition to a respectful yet loose handling of beloved characters, Monsters University excels in its depiction of the college world. With a retainer-wearing Mike as a vicarious, starry-eyed guide, the prestigious institution is introduced as a place of wonder and infinite possibility, the epitome of higher education. Aided by Randy Newman’s classic alma mater score, the campus sights and its range of cliché character types, including Sully as the prototypical freshman B.M.O.C. wannabe, grant the setting a sense of authenticity with distinct monster twists. Students four stories tall aren’t exactly walking around Harvard, but at M.U. that guy is merely another number.
While Monsters, Inc. suggests that Mike and Sully have been best buds since birth, their university days show a delightfully different story. The two weren’t even roommates, as Mike was originally paired with future nemesis Randy (Steve Buscemi), who wasn’t always so cruel. Instead, the future pals butt heads in class with Goodman’s voice superbly channeling the cockiness and know-it-all nature of Sully’s gifted but lazy legacy student and Crystal’s nasally timbre relaying Mike’s equally blind book-smart confidence. Expelled from the Scaring School after a lecture hall accident, these opposing forces naturally must put aside their differences to regain admittance, and in doing so their teamwork elicits the kind of innocent warm fuzzies that made Pixar famous.
The only way back is to impress Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) by winning the Greek life Scare Games, for which the pair must join the university’s least popular frat, Oozma Kappa, whose chants of “We’re O.K.!” sums up their reputation and general self-esteem. During this time, it’s unclear whether Mike and Sully are still attending classes or, as the visual evidence suggests, pouring all of their time and energy into the competition, but the imaginative challenges and morale-boosting camaraderie make the academic scarcity a mere afterthought. And while the O.K. brothers survive and advance, heading for an inevitable happy ending, director Dan Scanlon and his screenwriting team throw an impressive curveball that significantly adds to the film’s richness. Through a finale that deftly employs horror tropes and a renews one’s investment in the two leads, Monsters University delivers on its promise of age-defying entertainment and makes viewers wonder why such an outcome was ever in doubt.
Monsters University is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.