Billy Crystal voices the character of Mike Wazowski in "Monsters University."
Move over, "Animal House." From now on, the first college movie that leaps to mind may well be G-rated. That'd be "Monsters University," the Pixar prequel to 2001's "Monsters, Inc."
Weirdly, since its presumable core audience is made up of kids, "Monsters University" may be the most thoughtful and, in social terms, realistic film ever made about the college experience. I apply "realistic" flexibly, of course, because Monsters University is just what it sounds like: the esteemed institution where young monsters like Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) matriculate. These BFF characters from "Monsters, Inc." have yet to meet when "Monsters University" begins: The film recounts their initial dislike, teamwork under duress and eventual bond of friendship.
Mike and Sulley correspond to college archetypes that make them "natural enemies": the studious nerd and the "legacy" jock/fratboy. Given the love for the first film, there's an element of risk in making the best friends antagonistic for much of the film's running time, but it's one of several challenges to assumptions the prequel productively makes. Mike and Sulley both find themselves in the elite School of Scaring, but they can remain there only by proving themselves (to Helen Mirren's fearsome Dean Hardscrabble).
Prefiguring their need for each other, each has something the other lacks: pea-with-legs Mike has nurtured mental discipline, while the hulking, roaring Sulley has the natural capacity to scare.
When both see their dream slipping away, they reluctantly team up, joining the outcast fraternity Oozma Kappa ("We're OK! We're OK!") in the hope against hope of winning the campus Scare Games. Their frat brothers compose a humorously motley crew: middle-aged student Don Carlton (Joel Murray), nervous Scott "Squishy" Squibbles (Peter Sohn), upbeat Art (Charlie Day), and conjoined siblings Terri Perry (Sean Hayes) and Terry Perry (Dave Foley). Their polar opposite is Roar Omega Roar, the jerky jock frat headed by Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion, doing his best smug guy).
Comparisons to the first film will likely find this one underrated. The originality and novelty of this world may be old news, but the plotting here is surprisingly inventive, perhaps because the fresh Pixar talent involved -- writer-director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird -- is eager to score with this first big-league at-bat. A (college) sports-movie structure provides a framework for setpiece after setpiece but also the opportunity to surprise with a nice, big, genre-shifting twist into a G-rated homage to summer-camp horror flicks.
While fairly all-around impeccable, from its sight gags to its super-fun Randy Newman score, "Monsters University" most impresses with its perfection as a friendship story and its breadth of considerations about the value and meaning of college, which the film acknowledges but most certainly does not take for granted (remember: one-time Pixar CEO Steve Jobs was a college dropout).
The film engages in student ethics and notes the truth that learning, at least at this level, comes more from experience and peers than the classroom. Devaluing the desperation to be cool and hide feelings, and valuing education, teamwork and friendship, "Monsters University" is exactly the sort of movie one hopes kids will beg to watch over and over.
Rated G. One hour, 50 minutes.
- Peter Canavese