My son loves the original Monsters Inc. I remember when we took him on a road trip, and my wife sat in the back seat of the car with him and our laptop. I think they watched the whole movie at least twice over the course of the car ride. While that will test the patience of even the most tolerant parent, I didn’t mind much. My son likes it for the colorful animation sight gags, and for having a protagonist who was just about his age. I appreciate those aspects, but it took on new meaning when I had kids. It has a lot to say about discovering parental nature that you never knew you had, combined with a strong but entirely organic plot involving energy sustainability. And it’s just good film-making, filled with wonderful characters and layered humor. But even I was a little skeptical about Monsters University. No one clamors for a prequel to anything these days, so it looked like a corporate decision more than an artistic one. I shouldn’t have doubted Pixar. Monsters University brilliantly uses familiar characters to deal with completely different themes in a completely new setting. It’s the definition of what a sequel/prequel should strive for.
It’s freshman year and Monsters U., and Mike Wizowski has arrived with dreams to become a top scarer. He’s ready too, committed to studying and working as hard as he can to fulfill those dreams. He forms a rivalry with James P. Sullivan, a cocky scare major with a family legacy to carry on. When the two get in a fight that gets them both kicked out of the program, they join with the lamest frat on campus to try to win the annual Scare Games, in a bid to impress the dean and get their dreams back on track.
That sounds like a send-up of every college comedy from Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds, but this is Pixar we’re talking about. They aren’t interested in cheap parodies or clean endings. Rather, they commit to the characters and really let us dig into them, moreso than in the first film. It’s difficult for sequels to teach us more about things we already know about, because it runs the risk of cheapening the original. (Remember midi-chlorians?) At no point does Monsters University fall into that trap. Of course Mike was the hard-working bookworm who was telling the rest of the floor to pipe down. It makes sense that Sully was a scaring blueblood used to coasting on the accomplishments of his family. What’s really special here is that we get a chance to see how those qualities inform the monsters we already know and love. I would be very interested to rewatch the original after seeing this one, because I suspect it would only improve the experience.
I especially like that Monsters Univeristy embraces the idea of consequence. We’re used to seeing heroes get away with whatever they do in order to accomplish their goals. It’s refreshing to see a story that makes its characters answerable for bad decisions, even if they end up being setbacks rather than deal- breakers. It’s not a story of “the easy way.” Rather, it really is about dedication and friendship, and while I’m not sure the kids will pick up on it so much, it’ll keep the adults in the audience engrossed.
And besides all of that, it’s just a fun movie. More than any other Pixar series, every frame in both movies is bursting with little sight gags and throwaway jokes. There are some wonderful extended sequences that made all of us laugh out loud. Monsters University is also pulsating with that inventive spirit that drove the first movie. I’ve always been amazed at the sheer number of different monster designs in both films. It makes our own world look drab by comparison, and I don’t think I’ll be alone in wishing that I could visit the other side of those doorways.
I could go on, but know this: Monsters University is the best work that Pixar has turned in since Toy Story 3. It’s inventive and wildly entertaining, but it also deepens what made us enjoy the first movie so much. Once again, Pixar has managed to find something bright and joyful for kids, and with themes and characters that will appeal to adults. In other words, a true family movie.