Billy Crystal as Mike
John Goodman as Sullivan
Steve Buscemi as Randy
Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble
Peter Sohn as Squishy
Joel Murray as Don
Sean Hayes as Terri
Dave Foley as Terry
Charlie Day as Art
Alfred Molina as Professor Knight
Tyler Labine as Greek Council VP
Nathan Fillion as Johnny
Aubrey Plaza as Greek Council President
Bobby Moynihan as Chet
Noah Johnson as Young Mike
Julia Sweeney as Ms. Squibbles
Bonnie Hunt as Mrs. Graves
John Krasinski as Frank McCay
Bill Hader as Referee / Slug
Beth Behrs as PNK Carrie
Bob Peterson as Roz
John Ratzenberger as Yeti
Directed by Dan Scanlon
On his entry into Monsters University, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) only wants one thing to be a great Scarer. His dreams and studies come to a grinding halt when he gets into a conflict with MU’s “legacy Scarer” James T. Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) and both of them get themselves expelled from the Scaring program. In order to save face and his dreams, Mike and Sully put together a ragtag band of outcasts from the Oozma Kappa fraternity to take part in the annual “Scare Games” in order to get themselves back into MU’s Scaring program.
With thirteen movies under their belt and seven released in the same number of years, Pixar Animation Studios have been put into an interesting situation through their relationship with Disney where they’re still trying to create new and original ideas while trying to keep their much-beloved characters from previous movies alive. It’s been nearly 18 years since the original “Toy Story” and these days every Tom, Dick and Harry computer animation company has their own characters and stories that can find a large moviegoing audience, so it falls to Pixar to still prove themselves as innovators.
“Monsters, Inc.” was as much of a technical and storytelling revelation when it was released in 2001 as were its three Pixar predecessors, much of it coming down to the fact that the pairing of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Monsters, Inc.’s top Scarers Mike Wazowski and James T. Sullivan helped make it an animated movie that adults could accept as readily as their children.
“Monsters University” isn’t a completely misguided attempt at revisiting those characters–the chemistry between Crystal and Goodman still undoubtably works–but it’s nowhere remotely close to one of those “perfect Pixar movies” – movies like “WALLE” or “Ratatouille” that were so innovative and original in their storytelling they stood alone. Instead, it’s very much part and parcel a prequel done for the sake of enticing those who did love “Monsters, Inc.” back into theaters to learn the backstory of those characters. Some parts of that story are easier to accept than others.
It’s immediately evident this is meant to be Mike’s story from the opening sequence where we see him as a young impressionable monster on a field trip to Monsters, Inc., where his dreams to become a Scarer begin in earnest. Years later, he’s one his way to Monsters University to chase his own dreams and that’s where he first encounters James T. Sullivan, the hotshot “big monster on campus” who feels he can coast through his scaring studies due to his appearance and family legacy. The tough head of the Scaring program, Dean Hardscrabble–more genius voice casting in the form of Helen Mirren–is not allowing anyone to coast through her program, and the endless competing between the two young monsters ends up being their undoing.
The fact that Mike and Sully aren’t friends and don’t get along when they first meet may have been the most obvious route the filmmakers could have taken with this story, and because of that, it really only leaves one place for the movie to go in terms of their relationship and how it evolves. It’s not the most impressive or clever of plots and in fact, it’s the type of obvious and predictable prequel/sequel storytelling we’d expect from much lesser animation houses than Pixar.
The by-the-books nature of the storytelling becomes more obvious when we’re introduced to the plot device of the “Scare Games” where Mike, Sully and the motley crew of monsters, who really have no chance of winning, are suddenly seen as serious contenders. In fact, it’s the introduction of the Oozma Kappas, the campus outcasts that take Mike and Sully in after they’re expelled from the Scaring Program, where the movie finally finds its footing. As much as humor is a subjective thing, if you can’t find anything to laugh at in the antics of the lovable group of supporting characters–Charlie Day’s enigmatic Art, the two-headed oddball Terri and Terry, the “mature student” or the overly eager Mamas’ Boy Squishy Squibbles–then you probably shouldn’t even be trying to watch a comedy.
And countering that is the slithery, creeping presence of Helen Mirren as the school headmaster, whose voice is so perfect, you can close your eyes and get the same chill down your spine whenever she speaks even without the visual accompaniment of her in monster form.
There are times when “Monsters University” is trying too hard to show off its technical achievements, particularly the monster-filled quad scenes in which there’s way too much going on visually. Where Pixar has always excelled is finding the heart within their stories, and they eventually get there when Mike brings the Oozma Kappas to Monsters, Inc. to show them why he dreamed of being a Scarer in the first place. But honestly, the heart of the movie is always present in Crystal’s performance, who is bringing such sheer joy to voicing the character again, it’s impossible to remain overtly cynical at any point during the movie.
Otherwise, much of the film involves the group preparing and taking part in the Scare Games, which is fun to watch but nothing particularly new or original. It’s only after they’re finished, essentially the point where Mike and Sully have to work together in order to succeed which is expected from the beginning, when the movie goes into territory more on par with the original.
As much as “Monsters University” is another visual treat, special attention has to be drawn to the musical work by Pixar regular Randy Newman who creates a score that’s truly special in terms of bringing that much-needed heart to certain moments but also filled with memorable tunes that leaves you tapping your toe as you leave the theater. If one were to pick one MVP outside the voice cast, it would have to be Newman’s contribution.
The Bottom Line:
There’s some amount of cheating going on to try to make “Monsters University” work as a viable prequel, but ultimately it does work and much of that comes down to the fact that the genius pairing of Crystal and Goodman still works 12 years later. It’s not Pixar’s most innovative or clever movie by any means, but it ultimately delivers in terms of offering something to entertain everyone and the simplistic nature of story won’t even remotely quell your kids’ enjoyment.