It seems like it would be easy to criticize Pixar for making so many sequels these days. Between Toy Story 3, the new Monsters University and the upcoming Finding Dory, it seems almost like they’ve forgotten how to make new, original films. Yet, where other companies would use a sequel as a way to cash in on previous success, Pixar instead gives us creative new stories that use a well known base to tell new, original stories, and never gives us just more of the same. (Even the generally poor Cars 2 dared to do something different.) The result with Toy Story 3 was a sorrowful and heartfelt look at aging and the passage of time which was nominated for Best Picture. And now, with Monsters University they’ve done it again, taking the characters we love and going back to tell a prequel, and giving us a funny new story that fits in with what we know yet stands completely on its own.
Monsters University, as the title suggests, is a college movie, equally Pixar’s version of Revenge of the Nerds as it is a Monsters, Inc. spinoff. The movie opens with a Mike Wazowski as a child on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. with his class. He’s the runt of the class, unable to find a buddy to walk around with and too small to see over the big kids. But after a close encounter with one of the scarers, he sets his little heart on becoming one too, and is determined to attend Monsters University, the best scaring school around.
Fast forward, and Mike is being dropped off for his first day at Monsters U, as a scaring student. He’s still tiny, and not the least bit frightening, but he’s studied hard and knows everything that books can teach about being a scarer. He meets his roommate, another potential scarer who we all will recognize, and heads off to his first day of class. It’s a dream come true when the teacher picks him to answer the first question, and unlike the rest of the class he knows the answer, but at that moment the door bursts open and an enormous monster fills the room with his roar.
It’s James P. Sullivan, son of the famous scarer, who seems built to scare. Thus begins a rivalry we would never have imagined from the first film. Sully is the jock slacker, naturally talented but with no drive to learn, while Mike is the bookworm, who knows all the theory but seems destined for smaller things. The two immediately clash; Sully is chosen to be a member of the cool fraternity on campus, while Mike is scorned. But when an accident caused by their fighting results in them both being kicked out of the scare program by Dean Hardscrabble, they find themselves in the same boat.
The only way to get back in the Dean’s good graces is by winning the Scare Games, a competition between Greek houses based on the fundamentals of scaring, but the only fraternity that will take them is Oozma Kappa (OK), the fraternity of misfits and losers. To say any more about the story would be to give anything away, and while I wouldn’t call the ending a twist, I will say that it’s not what most people will expect. We all know where they end up, as the top scaring team at Monsters, Inc., but how they get there is incredibly fun to watch.
A lot of that fun comes from Billy Crystal and John Goodman. They are Mike and Sully, just like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are Woody and Buzz. Goodman brings a soulfulness to the often-disgruntled Sully, while Crystal’s improvisational performance as Mike is always hilarious (I could be wrong, but I swear he made a reference to The Princess Bride). They are surrounded with a colorful cast of characters, from the misfits of OK to Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble to Nathan Fillion as the head of the popular frat on campus.
In a lot of ways, Monsters University is funnier than Monsters, Inc., but it does feel like it’s missing something, and it’s obvious what that something is: Boo. Who doesn’t tear up at the end of Monsters, Inc. when Sully opens that rebuilt door and peeks inside to hear Boo excitedly exclaim, “Kitty!”? Monsters University doesn’t have that emotional punch, but it doesn’t necessarily need it either. It’s much more of a comedy, and that’s fine. Not every film needs to crush our hearts with adorable munchkins, and Monsters University isn’t without its emotional side.
If Monsters University is the sort of sequel we can expect in the future from Pixar, then consider my doubts about Finding Dory erased (though, really, as long as Ellen DeGeneres is back, I’d be happy just watching Dory talk to herself for 2 hours). And considering we have two original Pixar movies between now and then, I’d say we’re in good shape. As for Monsters University, this one’s a winner, chalk one up for the misfits, those of us who are just OK.