College is often a time of growth and development for people, and it's evidently no different for monsters. In Monsters University, Mike Wazowski, the spherical lime-green cyclops voiced by Billy Crystal, faces the important question of whether he is scary enough to fulfill his dream of being a professional scarer. Meanwhile, James "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman), the furry blue Sasquatch-y fellow, has a natural talent for scariness but must learn to apply himself or risk squandering it.
As with most Pixar films, this prequel to Monsters Inc. has some deep ideas underneath its candy-colored, kid-friendly merriment. And like almost (but not quite) every Pixar film, Monsters University is jolly, well-crafted fun that's liable to be one of the year's best animated movies -- and that will probably be the case even though it's not a particularly great one. Still, while Pixar's last couple of entries (Cars 2, Brave) felt somewhat off-the-mark, this one is fresher and cleverer, almost a return to form.
Disregarding the line in Monsters Inc. that indicated Mike and Sully had been friends since elementary school, the new story has them meeting as freshmen at Monsters U., the premier institute of higher learning in the monster world (though their rivals at Fear Tech would dispute that). Mike has dreamed of coming here ever since he visited Monsters Inc. on a class field trip as a child and saw first-hand the awesome work that pro scarers do. He's studious, conscientious, and eager to please.
Sully, on the other hand, is the son of a legendary scarer, and his family name has gotten him this far. Already a big man on campus, he cruises into class late and unprepared and has no interest in book-learnin' because he's got all the skills he needs. He's easy-going and fun to be around, friendly to his classmates, but he's coasting.
OK, now raise your hand if you were a Mike Wazowski when you were a college freshman. Mmhmm, mmhmm. I see a lot of hands. Be honest! And now, all the Sullies out there, let's see those hands. Yeah. Lots of those, too. Part of the fun of many Pixar adventures is seeing our own experiences translated into the world of toys, bugs, cars, etc., and Monsters University (the directorial debut by animator Dan Scanlon) does an especially fine job of evoking college life through the eyes of monsters: frat initiations, frisbee on the quad, crusty old deans, over-helpful R.A.'s, late-night pranks, boring required courses, the whole deal. There are monster versions of nerds, jocks, snobs, goths, the local kids who live at home, and the middle-aged guys who go back to school after their careers peter out. It's more than just giving familiar college lingo a monstrous spin (though there's plenty of that: the frats and sororities have names like Oozma Kappa). The film's writers, Dan Scanlon, Robert L. Baird, and Daniel Gerson, show genuine enthusiasm for revisiting what we can only assume were their own fond college days.
The plot is simple, following the familiar pattern established by university-set comedies of yesteryear. After running afoul of the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (a centipede-like creature voiced by Helen Mirren), Mike and Sully must both prove themselves in the campus-wide Scare Games or risk being kicked out of the scaring program. Having no alternatives, they team up with a ragtag group of misfits to perpetrate a Revenge of the Nerds-style upset. Mike must learn to use more than his brain, Sully has to use more than his brawn, and they both have to learn teamwork.
Themes of friendship and togetherness are always welcome in these warm, fuzzy toons, and it's no small pleasure to hear our old pals Mike and Sully -- and Crystal and Goodman -- bantering again. The plot wisely lets them become friends, or at least friendly, early on, so it isn't the story of two guys who hate each other learning to be friends; it's two guys who are opposites but both good, making each other better. (It's nice to hear Steve Buscemi as the chameleonic Randy again, too. The origin of a villain!) The new characters -- goofy Art (Charlie Day), two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley), timid Squishy (Peter Sohn), and more -- are sweetly lovable in their own ways. The storytelling isn't as tight as it could be, and it isn't very inspired or ambitious, and I can't say I felt much emotional investment in what was going on. But "Monsters University" is no cheap sell-out, either. It has enough laughs, heart, and entertaining creatures to amuse your own little monsters.