To put it bluntly: I despise the idea of prequels. By default, doesn’t a prequel essentially lack any drama by the existence of a successive film? Not to mention, most prequels end up shrinking the world already established because it has to reach a determined end. A great continuation of any story builds upon the original, where the point of the prequel is to deconstruct it, usually to tame results. Being the prequel hater that I am, when I heard Monsters Inc., one of my favorite films of all time, was getting a prequel, my heart broke. Ok, so I didn’t lose sleep over the announcement, but I truly couldn’t fathom anything worthwhile emanating from this decision. After all, it’s not like Pixar has a sterling track record with sequels recently (Cars 2 shouldn’t exist), but then again, it’s not like Cars was an inalienable film for Pixar either. After fretting obnoxiously over one of my favorite films getting the prequel treatment, and actually seeing it, I can calmly report that Monsters University doesn’t tarnish the reputation of the original film, nor does it neglect laying on the charm. Taking place during Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sully’s (John Goodman) formative years, Monsters University lovingly borrows its plot from the likes of Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House, albeit with much less alcohol and bare breasts.
After a jazzy, well-orchestrated collegial mishap, Mike and Sully find themselves on the outskirts of their fabled university’s scaring major. Wazowski, not particularly a frightening being, is a driven misfit that’s always dared to exceed people’s expectations of his small, adorable frame. Sully, as you already likely deduced, has an innate ability to scare, but has zero inclination to actually further his family born talent. In order to save their college careers, Wazowski and Sully exploit a defunct fraternity of misfit monsters, and join Monster University’s annual scaring event called the Scare Games. If they magically win, MU’s dean is willing to reinstate our delightful characters back into the school of scaring. If you’ve seen Revenge of the Nerds, then you pretty much know how this whole thing unravels. Wazowski and Sully rebuild the confidence of social pariahs for personal gain, become friends with said pariahs while taking the competition by surprise, and they ultimately succeed by beating the popular jocks at their own game and obliterate the social barriers separating all monsters on campus.
Familiarity should breed contempt, but Pixar contorts the formula a handful of ways that smartly evokes the spirit of college films while also providing more wrinkles than one might expect. The ending is especially a nice twist, where dishonesty belies a virtuous and sanctimonious finish. Nonetheless, the film’s big asset is its profound amount of energy. Much like its predecessor/successor, Monsters University is a bright, colorful romp that moves at a brisk pace. Lacking very little filler, it efficiently provides us with wonderful gags and hard-earned lessons. Lending the film much of its energy, outside of the film’s lean storytelling, is the fine choice of voice actors. It’s not often that I place a great deal of credence at the feet of voice casting, especially when I believe in most cases you can seemingly put anyone behind a microphone, but Monsters University makes great use of placing the proper voice with the right personality. The return of Crystal and Goodman is simply fantastic, as both men perfectly project the humanity within these animated monsters, while delivering punch line after punch line like the seasoned vets that they are.
But the real standouts for me are Nathan Fillion, who voices the figure-head jock nemesis, and Charlie Day, who voices an absent-minded furball that’s physically built like a parabola. Fillion’s usual gusto plays perfectly into his character’s annoying machismo, while Day’s inescapable innocence and aloofness makes his character one of the film’s true treasures. For me, it’s easy to justify the film’s existence by pointing to its voice acting and level of fun, but it’s also easy to see why the film fails to match the complete magic of Monsters Inc: it’s not nearly as clever or expansive. In Monster’s Inc., we’re exploring a brand new world, one that playfully redefines the existence and purpose of a monster. In Monsters University, the world doesn’t particularly grow, if anything it shrinks before us as possibilities erode. Maybe comparing the two is a tad bit unfair, but part of me felt underwhelmed from an imagination standpoint. Even if my imagination wasn’t properly satiated, Monsters University is Pixar’s best film since Toy Story 3. Comparatively speaking, that may not mean much, but its fluid animation, infectious characters, and humor make it the rare prequel that deserves to exist.