Pixar Studios has painted itself into a corner (though because it’s Pixar, it’s an adorable corner, surrounded by top-quality enamel paint). They’ve established a reputation for themselves as the animation studio of record, the place for state-of-the-art children’s entertainment that also reliably hits the sweet spot for adults. At their best, Pixar movies can realistically aspire to the status of lasting cinematic art. (We won’t quibble here about which of these movies should enter the pantheon—I’m a partisan of Ratatouille and the Toy Story trilogy myself.)
But because Pixar’s rep has been polished to such a high sheen over the course of three decades, the slightest bit of tarnish really shows. Cars 2 (2011) was no worse than most hectic, underplotted summer kids’ movies, and better than many; still, upon its release there was much garment-rending and tooth-gnashing about the declining standards of Pixar. The studio’s first-ever prequel, Monsters University, will probably get some of those same reactions: Though it’s a far sight better than Cars 2, it falls well short of the standard set by its excellent predecessor, Monsters Inc. (2001). And though this is a sweet, clever, gorgeously animated movie I’d be glad to take my kid to on a Saturday afternoon, I’m not sure it’s one I’d insist all my grownup friends drop what they’re doing to see.
Directed by Cars co-writer Dan Scanlon, the film revisits several of the main characters from Monsters Inc., back in their formative days at the titular alma mater. Mike Wazowski, the green walking eyeball voiced by Billy Crystal; and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, the shaggy purple-and-blue behemoth voiced by John Goodman; are back, as is their nemesis, the sneaky four-handed lizard Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi). The story folds in elements of college movies from Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds, imagining a stratified big-monster-on-campus culture in which the BMOCs, proud of their superior scariness, lord it over their cuddlier, less threatening classmates.
To refresh your memory about the logic by which the Monsters universe functions: The chief power source in this world of diversely shaped weirdos consists of the screams of human children, whom the monsters sneak up on nightly through magic doors connecting the two universes. (As ingeniously thought through in the first movie, it all makes a kind of sense.) This time around, we learn that being a “scarer” is one of the most prestigious and desirable jobs in the monster world, which makes Monsters University, among other things, a film about the anxieties of meritocracy. Shy, nerdy, minuscule Mike has dreamed since childhood of becoming a world-class scarer. He eschews frat parties to bone up on his sneaking and roaring technique, the better to impress the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, wonderfully animated as a dour, glowering centipede).
Sulley, on the other hand, comes from a legendary family of scarers, and he’s lazily resting on his laurels as a big, furry dude with a naturally loud roar. When they’re both kicked out of the scaring program for picking a fight with each other in class, Mike and Sulley find themselves rooming together at the hopelessly uncool Oozma Kappa frat house (whose misfit denizens, including a U-shaped Muppetlike creature voiced by Charlie Day, are among the best things in the movie).
Monster U’s biggest mistake is to make its chief conflict a monster-on-monster one—the annual running of the university’s intramural Scare Games, in which the pitiful Oozma Kappa team must take on the sneering jocks of Roar Omega Roar. Monsters Inc. focused instead on the relationship between Sulley and the little girl he accidentally brought across the threshold into the monster world. The notion of children as tiny, toxic beings capable of making even the most imposing monster don a hazmat suit has an understandable Bizarro World appeal for children (and a different kind of appeal for adults, who may on occasion experience kids as precisely that alien and frightening). Monsters University doesn’t truck in that kind of rich, fairy-tale–like symbolic meaning—in essence, it’s a sports movie, a simple, inspirational story of monster friendship, teamwork, and pluck. I’m not sure I needed to revisit Mike and Sulley’s world 12 years later (or, looked at from their point of view, earlier). But once you find yourself whisked over the threshold, it’s a colorful, funny, charming place to spend an afternoon.