Directed by Dan Scanlon
Written by Robert L. Baird and others.
Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirrin, Steve Buscemi, and others
Good prequels stand on their own merits, delivering an entertaining, high-quality story that can be enjoyed by people who don’t know a thing about the universe. The best prequels do all that and more, offering some insight that enriches the movie you thought you already knew.
“Monsters University” fits firmly into that latter category. A prequel to the beloved Pixar movie “Monsters, Inc.,” the movie shakes up the classic “underdogs prove themselves in college” story just enough to make it interesting. The slowly developing friendship between Mike and Sully has genuine challenges that aren’t easily solved, and the nods to “Monsters, Inc.” are rewarding, but catching them is not necessary to enjoy the movie. Even if this were the first time I’d met these characters, this movie would be enough to make me fall in love with them.
Mike gets his turn as the primary focus in this movie, which starts with an elementary school trip our favorite green eyeball takes to the titular company. He decides then and there that he wants nothing more than to be a scarer, a dream he immediately dedicates the rest of his life to fulfilling. When he gets to Monsters University, however, Mike has to face more challenges than he could have ever imagined.
All of the voice actors from “Monsters, Inc.” return, including a few surprise characters who pop up in quick guest appearances. The references to the original movie are subtle enough to inspire grins without distracting from the main story, though there’s one wonderful joke that depends entirely on knowing at least the basic plot of “Monsters, Inc.”
The character archetypes will be familiar to anyone who’s seen “Revenge of the Nerds” or any of its 10,000 clones, but there are little touches that give the characters just the right amount of depth and vulnerability. In a surprising move, the normally lovable Sully starts out as a sullen jock who’s nearly unlikable. Mike has his own weaknesses, and the two have to work hard enough to become a team that their eventual friendship feels that much more heartwarming.
Like most college movies, “Monsters University” also champions the theme of believing in yourself no matter what. Interestingly, it doesn’t ignore the very real challenges that life often throws in the face of this philosophy, and even audience members who know exactly where Mike and Sully end up may be surprised at how they get there.
It also gave me insights into the dynamic between the two characters that changes how I see “Monsters, Inc.” In the original movie, Mike seemed like the quintessential sidekick, faithful and true but not particularly dynamic in his own right. “Monsters University” showed me that I was very much mistaken, and I left the theater with a craving to rewatch the first movie and see what I had missed.
After all, the greatest prequels let us know that there was more to the story than we ever imagined.
“The Blue Umbrella”
The short film airing with “Monsters University” is light and sweet, but hardly Pixar’s most substantial offering in the genre. Its biggest strength lies in showing off animators’ ability to create realistic-looking environments, which are impressive enough I spent half the short convincing myself that no real footage had been used.