Monsters University might be a prequel to one of the best films Pixar ever created, but while it’s assuredly funny and has its heart firmly in the right place, it still represents a bit of a Sophomore slump for the characters. It’s great to see one-eyed Mike Wazowski and the lusciously furry James P. Sullivan back together following Monsters Inc., but this look at how they became friends in the first place suffers from a script that slowly degenerates in terms of plotting and a bit of an identity crisis in terms of what it wants to be.
Young, brash and book smart Mike (voiced once again by Billy Crystal) heads off to his first year of university to become a world class scarer at the prestigious titular academy. Spending hours upon hours every day studying makes him the teacher’s pet, but his decidedly gentile appearance (as far as monsters go) makes him easily derided by the cool, underachieving frat boy with scaring lineage on campus, Sully (John Goodman). Their rivalry gets them both in hot water with the terrifying dragon-like dean (Helen Mirren), who wants to expel the pair of them on site: Sully for not caring and Mike for just not being even remotely scary. Instead of expulsion, Sully and Mike work together to help the essentially useless fraternity of castaways and nerds, Oozma Kappa, to compete in and win a campus wide practical and scholastic competition known as the Scare Games. Their team wins, they stay. They lose, they’re both gone. But can the two stop bickering long enough to actually work as leaders and parts of a team?
The core concept of Dan Scalon’s take on the characters is a solid one. It’s really hard to build up a friendship, especially when a film already exists with the two main characters as established chums. It also isn’t afraid of making either of them look like jerks. Mike is kind of self-righteous and Sully is insufferably smug in his worst of moments. The concept of the two of them making just as excellent of friends as they do enemies is a great hook that the filmmakers run with quite nicely.
The film’s switcheroo in terms of protagonists and antagonists also strengthen and inform the relationships of the main duo. It’s a potentially harmful gambit to make both previously likable characters into jerks, but in university that’s probably the kinds of people they would have been to begin with. Crystal and Goodman once again bring their A-game to the roles, and the film’s espousing of embracing individuality and learning to think about people other than yourself are particularly well honed in their capable hands.
The world of Monsters University is also an intriguingly realized one. It’s not a standard fraternity comedy, nor is it trying hard to be one. But the creatures that inhabit it are an intriguing cross section of campus life. There’s the nerdy do-gooder Squishy (Peter Sohn), the priggish blue-blooded frat leader (a pitch perfect cast Nathan Fillion), the mature student past his prime (Joel Murray), a bickering two headed brotherly duo (Dave Foley and Sean Hayes), and best of all, a delightfully loopy new age philosophy worm type thing (Charlie Day, stealing the whole show). There are also several callbacks to the first film, including the introduction of the then nerdy and sheepish Randall (Steve Buscemi), but those are kept to a minimum with the campus taking precedent over the company they would eventually work for.
But as touching as it is to watch Mike and Sully come into their own and learn to become an unstoppable team, there’s still quite a bit off about the film, with most of the issues arising in the films completely off the rails third act. It’s shocking that the film kind of degenerates in terms of storytelling as much as it does, but the evidence is there as the finale lurches awkwardly to an ill fitting conclusion. Without giving away too much, there are elements that maddeningly contradict some of the logic set forth in the first film and plot points that are introduced early on that ultimately go nowhere and seem like they were cut to keep the film under two hours, but at 110 minutes, it’s already longer than it needs to be.
Also, while it’s admirable for Pixar to try their hand at a style of movie they haven’t attempted yet, it’s hard at times to tell what the audience for the film exactly is. The film’s often genteel humour is clearly aimed at the younger set, and adults won’t really get a whole lot of mileage out of the jokes here. At the same time, a lot of the actual university dynamics in play (like the function of the dean, style of classes, greek life) will actively have to be explained to younger kids who won’t understand a word of it. It seems like the film is being pulled in two directions at the same time with neither wanting to compromise. In a way, it’s very much like the heroes at the heart of it.
In the end, this is still silly fun with enough to recommend it. It’s a solid B- if its being given a grade and a lot of that is probably just because I actively wanted to like it and it gave quite a few laughs. The story is a C- in terms of how much of a hot mess it is, but there are solid A’s for effort all around. It’s the weakest Pixar film outside of the Cars movies, but there’s a pretty huge chasm between those and this. It’s not a bad average to have, but it feels like watching a star pupil suffer from burnout. You’re disappointed, but you still want to give them a reassuring hug.