The power of friendship, being true to yourself, overcoming challenges, and believing in others are hardly original themes for family-film animation.
But there's something about Pixar's brand of magic that can turn such simple moral lessons into heartfelt and sweet messages that resonate. The key, as Mary Poppins would say, is that all-important spoonful of sugar — in this case lots of laughs — to help the messages go down.
And so it is with Monsters University, a delightful, witty, and warm film with something to say but that never preaches.
The movie returns many of the original cast members from 2001's Monsters, Inc., including Billy Crystal and John Goodman as the voices of Mike and Sulley, the best friends forever in the first film. In the prequel, the pair is at odds with each other as freshmen scare majors at Monsters University.
Mike is a book-smart, driven-to-scare monster whose small and green bowling-ball shape and cyclops eye prevent him from striking the necessary frightening pose to startle children. Sulley is a natural at scaring — he comes from a long line of legendary frighteners — and he's coasted on that ability for years, without cracking the books. Monsters University, overseen by the tough-but-fair Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, the best voice addition to the cast), proves to be a different experience for both.
Dean Hardscrabble sees Mike as a failure at scaring kids, despite his efforts to prove her wrong, and Sulley as a fraud, whose talent at fright is not enough to make a career. When both are kicked out of the program after an unfortunate — and funny — incident, they join the Greek fraternity Oozma Kappa (their slogan is "We're OK!"), with other campus outcasts: a middle-aged unemployed salesman named Don (Joel Murray); a two-headed monster whose Terri head (Sean Hayes) wants to dance, and whose other Terry head (Dave Foley) doesn't; a hairy and leggy new-age beast named Art (Charlie Day), and a blob named Scott "Squishy" Squibbles (Peter Sohn), who still lives at home with his mother Ms. Squibbles (Julia Sweeney), along with the rest of the fraternity.
These monster misfits would love to be scare majors, but none was accepted for the program, forcing them to choose from other degree options like designing bedroom doors or building yellow metal containers to store children's screams. But if this group somehow wins the annual Greek scare-off competition, the entire fraternity will be accepted into Scare School.
For Mike and Sulley, the games represent their final opportunity to realize their dreams. But to win the challenges, both feuding monsters must put aside their differences and learn to work together and with the rest of their team.
The heart of the film is Crystal and Goodman, who remain as funny, spunky, and relatable as you remember. Their buddy-buddy chemistry is so natural, the actors could team up for several more Monsters films.
There are a few holdover characters from Monsters, Inc. — Steve Buscemi is back as the villainous chameleon-like Randy, only now he's a nerdy roommate of Mike's who just wants to fit in with the cool group — but much of the film's fun is in the surprises along the way. Speaking of surprises, make sure to stick around the theater through the end of the credits.
Monsters University story and script are by Robert Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon, who aren't well-known Pixar talent, but have been involved in several of the animated studio's projects. Baird and Gerson also worked on the original Monsters, Inc. script. Their story moves at a nice pace, with enough good humor for children and adults to keep the smiles and giggles coming.
Scanlon also directed Monsters University, but it's not his first directorial effort. He also directed and wrote 2008's Tracy, a low-budget and live-action mockumentary about a dead children's television-show host. Never distributed (you can watch Tracy in installments on Funnyordie.com), Tracy is raw filmmaking, but it's also quirky, inventive, and often bitingly funny. If nothing else, the project was impressive enough that the Pixar brain trust believed in Scanlon's ability for this major sequel, much like they did with and Pete Docter and Monsters, Inc.
Scanlon mostly delivers on that potential, too, with a film less about aspirations of breaking new ground visually or thematically, but plays it safe and delivers exactly what audiences want and expect. By making a good — at times very good — film, Monsters University never rises to the level of Pixar greatness. Still, given the lingering hangover of the studio's Cars 2, Monsters University is better than expected. And for a Pixar film, that's more than good enough.
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.