College is a wondrous and challenging time between adolescence and adulthood where horizons are expanded, worldviews are shattered and lifelong friendships are made. It can also be a little scary no matter how many eyes, heads, or prehensile tails your classmates may have.
“Monsters University” is the prequel to Pixar’s 2001 classic “Monsters, Inc.” and takes us back to a world where monsters of all shape, size, and color live normal, mundane lives as they go to work, pay bills and, yes, go to college.
When we first met the beastly James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) he and his inseparable, one-eyed sidekick Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) were performing the heroic job of scaring children (thought to be contaminated and terrifying) to generate power for the monster world.
When whisked back to their college days we meet two young monsters hoping to make their names at the prestigious scaring college at Monsters U. Both have their limitations as James looks to skate by on natural talent and his good family name, while Mike relies on book-smarts and sheer tenacity to make up for his lack of inherent scariness.
Both are deemed failures by the school’s unforgiving Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) and are booted from the program. Looking for redemption the two put their differences aside and attempt to win their way back into the dean’s good graces by winning the Scare Games, a competition between fraternities and sororities to determine the best scarers on campus.
Unfortunately, the only fraternity that will accept James and Mike is the group of outcasts and misfits at Oozma Kappa.
As the competition gets rougher, the boys realize that if they are going to win, they are going to have to play up to their strengths while finding a way to bring out the best in their less-than-terrifying teammates.
What makes “Monsters University” a quintessential Pixar movie and the studio’s best all-around effort since “Toy Story 3” is the movie’s willingness to dig a level deeper than your average family film, while coloring in the margins with an abundance of flourishes and details.
There is a lot in “Monsters University” about accepting your limitations and coming to terms with the fact that not all of our dreams work out exactly as we have planned.
While that sounds awfully maudlin, there’s a lot more sweet than bitter here with plenty of laughs to be had. There are also some nice little G-rated tips of the cap to classic college movies like “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds” floating around above the heads of your younger audience members.
Goodman and Crystal are once again very good as they fit right back into their monstrous roles with ease. These aged actors also seem energized by taking advantage of the power of animation to play a couple of unsure and untested college kids.
It’s interesting how in a lot of ways Pixar has become a victim of its own success. After pioneering computer animation, the studio then went on such an unprecedented run of quality filmmaking that if they released a movie that wasn’t a triumph for the ages we somehow felt disappointed.
In my estimation, Pixar has been guilty of only one truly average effort (“Cars 2”), although there have been several other very good movies that have been knocked for not being sublimely wonderful.
I suspect “Monsters University” will fall into that latter category. It is not worthy of being counted in the studio’s gilded pantheon of classics, but it is still, by far, the best family film to come out this year and one of the better overall movies of a (to-date) lackluster 2013.
“Monsters University” is rated G.