Disney Pixar’s latest, a prequel to 2001’s successful Monsters, Inc., takes us back in time to the meeting place of protagonists Mike and Sulley, Monsters University.
Although almost none of the writers from Monsters, Inc. returned to pen Monsters University fans of Mike and Sulley’s first outing will find little reason to be disappointed here; Pixar have brought us a film as funny, entertaining, and endearing as ever.
First-time feature-length animation director Dan Scanlon was also part of the team of writers behind the new Monsters story, which is really more Mike’s (Billy Crystal) film than Sulley’s (John Goodman). In the opening the writers make up for the absence of Monsters, Inc.’s Boo by showing us an incredibly cute elementary-school Mike. Here voiced by newcomer Noah Johnston, Mike is almost all eyeball, and not yet as gangly as we’re used to seeing him (Pixar have found ingenious ways of making returning characters look subtly younger, but this is best achieved with Mike).
Young Mike is an oddball kid with only his teacher for a friend, creating several heartrending moments. A school trip to Monsters, Inc. itself, the setting of the previous Monsters film, fills Mike with ambition to be a scarer, and this dream propels him to Monsters University, where we arrive via montage and flashforward.
The narrative’s complication is simply that Mike is too round to be truly scary, despite hard work and a flawless technical knowledge of what it takes to be a scarer. The college Sulley, however, is completely the opposite – naturally scary without needing to study. Rivalry develops between them from their first meeting, and this conflict leads to their both being kicked out of Monsters University’s School of Scaring. The only way back in is to win the campus’ most talked about competition, the Scare Games.
This development leads to the appearance of several new and hilarious characters as Mike and Sulley join the fraternity Oozma Kappa and form a team in order to compete. From this point the film’s structure is reminiscent of other films centred around multi-staged competitions, most obviously Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with a focus on team dynamics and training interspersed with contests.
Both bring plenty of potential for humour, much of it stemming from Mike and Sulley’s oddball frat brothers. Giggles are especially raised in a wonderful set-piece which sees Oozma Kappa competing in a capture-the-flag contest in MU’s library, where they must try not to provoke the wrath of the sea monster librarian.
Monsters University is not only a thoroughly enjoyable film, it is also a successful prequel. As well as our principals, we see the reappearance of a few other original characters. Mike’s roommate, and an Oozma Kappa opponent, is Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi). The competition dramatised here serves as illuminating backstory to Randall’s villainy later in the Monsters timeline.
Monsters University is a cheering underdog story, which pleases all the more in its refusal to end with a too-good-to-be-true conclusion. Although the positive values Pixar advocate – hard work, determination, and teamwork – are rather obvious to an adult audience their importance is demonstrated in a world so detailed and richly imagined that this fails to detract from the pleasure of the film. This really is feel-good fun, and the elegant short The Blue Umbrella which precedes the film is also a delight.