I always thought of the original Monsters Inc. as second-tier Pixar: a good film, but not quite up to the same standards as Toy Story or Finding Nemo. Now that second-tier Pixar has become the norm, I find myself warming to Monsters University more than I might have otherwise. It's still not on the white-hot instant-classic level they hit just a few years ago, but considering the potential pitfalls of the material, it succeeds far more than we might expect.
The commercials lay out the basic scenario well enough -- a prequel that finds our boys Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) back in school -- but don’t show the thought and consideration put in to making that work. Another studio would plug in the Animal House jokes and be done with it. Pixar finds something much more daring and interesting to do with its concept… which demonstrates once again what going the extra mile can do.
Young Mike Wazowski knows all about going the extra mile. In the alternate universe he occupies, all the citizens are monsters and the best of them end up working for Monsters Inc. -- the giant company that supplies power for this world by scaring the bejeezus out of little kids. Mike wants nothing more than to scare with the best, and shows up at Monsters U ready to go. He knows the history, the techniques and the math (yes, there's math involved in frightening kids) and he studies harder than anyone else in class. There's just one problem: he's Mike, which means there are breeds of kitten more terrifying than he.
That's a hard truth to swallow, especially when Sulley shows up, all effortless menace and "who needs to study" confidence. It definitely starts those lifelong friends off on the wrong foot, and things only get worse when the local jerk fraternity starts pushing them around. Mike responds by signing up for Oozma Kappa – home to the school's misfits – and setting up the age-old battle between jocks and nerds for school supremacy.
That tired formula makes for the weakest part of Monsters U, too limp to really qualify as satire, but too uninspired to be mistaken for anything else. Director Dan Scanlon salvages a lot of it with the kinds of witty little details at which Pixar excels. Great new characters are part of it -- topped by a walking rolled-up rug named Art (voiced by Charlie Day) who embodies 'that guy" on every campus -- but Scanlon seems to innately understand how a college full of monsters both resembles and differs from the human versions. He finds terrific ways to blend our expectations, keeping us interested in what happens next while avoiding the most egregious clichés. Considering that this is a prequel and we all know how it turns out, that's no small accomplishment.
Besides the little things, Monsters U does a few big things to hold the course as well. Namely, it deals with failure -- real, tangible failure -- in a surprisingly adult way. Mike is a sweet, enthusiastic soul, and here he has to confront harsh realities that he has absolutely no control over. Hollywood in general and Disney/Pixar in particular like to stress that we can overcome anything if we just try hard enough. Monsters U refutes that notion… then makes its way to a satisfying happy ending anyway. The film can't match the narrative brilliance of Up or WALL*E, but compare it to most non-Pixar animated fare, and it's dealing a pretty strong hand.
That's all the more impressive considering that we've already mined one movie out of these characters, and that Pixar's last sequel ranks as the biggest dud they have thus far produced. It helps to put Mike center stage and let Sulley play the sidekick this time; both characters are very strong, but Mike had less to do last time, which means he has a little more gas in the tank this time. Regardless, Scanlon and his team take a very shaky proposition, and turn it into a smart and enjoyable piece of family entertainment. Pixar's best days may be behind it. But that doesn't mean it can't still make good movies, as Monsters University demonstrably proves.