Film Review: Monsters University

Rookie monsters try to prove they have what it takes to scare kids in Pixar's latest offering.

The bright, sparkly Monsters University will instantly win over younger viewers, and provide Pixar with a huge boost in ancillary income through toys and knick-knacks. Consistently pleasant and entertaining, it's also a bit too easy. Customers who remember the studio's earlier efforts may be less impressed by a movie so calculated and predictable.

A prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc., the movie explains how the green, one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and the gigantic, blue-and-pink James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) train to become "Scarers," whose interactions with youngsters produce crucial energy. A short prologue makes attending Monsters University an all-consuming goal for Mike. Sulley, a legacy student, takes a more blasé attitude toward classes.

Mike sticks to textbooks while Sulley parties with the "Roar Omega Roar" fraternity, but both students face expulsion after fighting in front of the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). Their only chance to continue in the Scarers program is to win the "Scare Games" against RΩR and other fraternities.

To compete, Mike and Sulley enlist the help of the outcast "Ooozma Kappa" frat, whose members include the two-headed Terry/Terri Perry (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes), former salesman Don Carlton (Joel Murray), New Age holdover Art (Charlie Day), and the boyish Squishy (Peter Sohn). Turning them into a unit will require both Mike and Sulley to face up to their hopes and flaws as monsters.

Monsters University
is filled with life lessons that are doled out like medicine after comic bits. "We could be a great team—we just need to work together" is typical. Pixar screenplays weren't always so obvious, or so single-minded. Parents who used to savor the narrative quirks and nods to Boomer nostalgia in other Pixar titles won't find nearly as much to occupy them here. Instead, Monsters University plays out like a standard college comedy, a cleaned-up Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell vehicle.

Pixar's glory days may be behind it, but the studio still knows how to turn out a feature. The animation here is far more complex than in Monsters, Inc. Almost every scene teems with movement and spectacle, and many of the supporting monsters are delightful. The slapstick is quick and satisfying, Randy Newman's music charming, and the voice actors uniformly outstanding. Billy Crystal and John Goodman share an easy familiarity that adds warmth to their scenes together.

3D effects are minimal, and the movie's color palette is sweet enough to cause toothaches, but on the whole Monsters University is expertly animated. The Blue Umbrella, a seven-minute cartoon, opens for the feature. Written and directed by Saschka Unseld, the dialogue-free short uses photorealistic backgrounds to capture an urban rainstorm. Delicate and moving, it proves that Pixar can still turn out memorable work.