A dozen years after the wildly popular “Monsters, Inc.” was released, Disney offers another look at the iconic characters in “Monsters University.” The premise isn’t quite as fresh as when the original film was released in 2001, but Pixar’s animators have a lot more technological firepower to work with. The result is visually stunning, but lacks some of the bravado and wit of “Monsters, Inc.”
The basic outline is the same. Monster civilization survives and thrives because of the ability to harness the screams of children into energy. The top guns of this world are the high-producing scarers. “Monsters University” features the duo of Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), meeting as undergraduates at the renowned Monstropolis institution that gives the movie its name. (In “Monsters, Inc.” Mike and Sully are clock-punching factory floor guys — they don’t come across like graduates of an elite university.) On campus, Mike is a grind and a striver, who dreams of becoming a scarer, and tries to make up in effort and desire what he lacks in scariness. Sully is a brash and entitled freshman — a legacy from a family of prominent scarers.
They come into conflict almost immediately. Mike resents Sully’s easy charm, and Sully bullies Mike almost as an afterthought. “Monsters University” appropriates aspects of campus movies of every stripe. There’s a bit of Harry Potter, with the weird and magical games, and the eclectic campus architecture with Gothic touches. There’s a bit of “Revenge of the Nerds,” as Mike’s declining social status pushes him into the arms of the most outcast fraternity on campus. And there’s a bit of “Animal House,” because every movie about college has to have a bit of “Animal House.”
After failing exams, Mike and Sully are forced to team up to compete in the annual Scare Games, in order to convince the terrifying insectoid Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) to readmit the pair to the prestigious scaring program. Rather than help the pair, Mike’s roommate Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) joins the popular campus clique. The film follows a fairly predictable path through a series of events in which Mike, Sully and their quirky teammates from the Oozma Kappa frat pile up improbable victories against their arch rivals at Roar Omega Roar.
But it’s not all smooth sailing. “Monsters University” weighs in with some surprisingly hard lessons about how work will only get you so far without talent, and how talent can languish without discipline. The plot manages to pivot away from these grim realities, but it’s to the movie’s credit that they’re mentioned at all.
The writing in “Monsters University” isn’t quite up to the level of excellence Pixar typically delivers. The laughs are there for the kids, but there are fewer of the pop culture references to engage parents.
Visually, the monsters, their games, the campus and the action are all beautifully and comically rendered. The 3-D is quite good, but the movie isn’t dependent on the 3-D shots to convey action and movement. It’s a bit jarring to hear Mr. Crystal’s crabby voice emanating from a putative college freshman, but since he’s playing a diminutive one-eyed green monster, I suppose some allowances can be made.
TITLE: “Monsters University”
CREDITS: Directed by Dan Scanlon; written by Mr. Scanlon, Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS