If anyone has laurels to rest on, it's Pixar. After nearly 20 years of releasing the smartest, most rewarding family movies (not counting the somnambulant Cars amid its creative highlights), Pixar has been operating on cruise control of late. The last excellent film in the company's canon is Up, and then came Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and Brave.
Honestly, if you could wipe the slate clean of Cars and its sequel, Pixar has never even made an average film. It's a remarkable achievement ... that couldn't possibly last forever.
The wizards of digital animation haven't shown us anything original or daring in a while, and with Monsters University there is not even a hint that they wanted to. It's steady. It's fun. It's got some great moments. In other words, nobody who takes a couple kids to the theater will be in any way disappointed. But rather than being transformational—the way most Pixar films were until Up—this is simply transactional. That's OK: You get what you expect and, more important, you get what you want.
Monsters University is a prequel, of course, to Monsters, Inc. Billy Crystal and John Goodman return, and it's interesting to hear them more than a decade later playing characters a generation younger than the first time we met them. Crystal, in particular, has a challenge sounding 40 years his junior as Mike Wazowski; Goodman's gruff baritone still fits the oafish James Sullivan even as a younger monster.
The one stroke of invention here is the idea to show these characters meeting at school and starting out as rivals. Mike was never going to be a world-class scarer. He's just not monstrous enough to get much of a jolt out of little kids when he sneaks up on them in the middle of the night. He's puny. The one big eye is a little creepy, true, but he's just not ... scary. That means Mike has to work harder than every other freshman at Monsters U., especially James Sullivan. Sulley's father's work is revered in hushed tones by students and faculty alike, so Sulley is lazy. He doesn't need to work hard, so he doesn't work at all.
A confrontation at the end of the first semester gets them expelled but Mike arranges a bet with the cold and prickly Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). If a team led by Mike and Sulley wins the annual Scare Games—a kind of student Olympics—they'll be allowed back into school.
It doesn't matter to the characters or the impressionable kids in the audience how the Scare Games actually end. Disney has a long tradition of using the moral victory to teach a valuable lesson, and just as often, when you think you'll learn something in characters' defeat, they wind up winning. The payoff here is that Mike and Sulley become friends, and the virtues of teamwork and perseverance are instilled throughout.
However, that doesn't mean the Scare Games aren't rewarding in their own right. Mike and Sulley are paired with the worst possible fraternity on campus—Oozma Kappa—which has more misfits than any Revenge of the Nerds movie. We meet some delightfully out-there characters in the frat house, but the most memorable may be Don Carlton (Joel Murray, brother of Bill). He's what they call a nontraditional student: 50-ish, a former car salesman, fat, almost excessively Midwestern.
While there is nothing incredibly strong about Monsters University, it never lags and never goes for jokes with out-of-reach punch lines. Director Dan Scanlon—who was in college when the first Toy Story was released—has made a really likable prequel despite not shooting for the stars. And though most animated films are rated PG these days, Monsters University is rated G, if that means anything to you.
Because Toy Story and Cars both spawned follow-ups, it always seemed logical that we'd wind up here, even if it was only for cynical marketing and merchandising reasons. So it's a point in Pixar's favor that this movie is not only worth taking your kids to but also actually worth watching (those are two very distinct kinds of films).
Another Finding Nemo adventure is due out in a couple of years, but that's the last retread in Pixar's future for a while. It has a Dia de los Muertos movie on the horizon, among a couple other new ideas, so it looks like there's reason to be excited about the company's future again. In the meantime, it's good to see Mike and Sulley back in action, and even better to see them have fun doing it.