When Disney/Pixar’s “Monsters Inc” was released way back in the fall of 2001, it was easily the studio’s warmest and endearingly heart-tugging feature. But “Monsters Inc,” in its vision of a monstrous universe that derives its power from children’s screams, was also the studio’s most self-contained feature; it was so emotionally fulfilling that it didn’t beg for further installments. Which is what makes “Monsters University,” the new “Monsters Inc” prequel, so baffling. Did anyone really stop to think, gee I wonder what Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) were like in monster college? The answer, of course, is no. The great, totally welcome shock, however, is how vibrant, hilarious and emotionally resonant “Monsters University” is. It might be wholly unnecessary, but you can’t help but love it anyway.
“Monsters University” starts out with a pint-sized Mike attending the giant, warehouse-like Monsters Inc scare floor. Mike meets one of his heroes, “Frightening” Frank McCay (John Krasinski) and follows him through a door into the human world, to watch how Frank, a kind of Lovecraftian skater dude, scares the pee-waddle out of a sleeping child. Frank is impressed with Mike’s life-endangering chutzpah and gives him his Monsters University hat and from that point forward Mike is determined to attend the university and become a top scarer, just like Frank. This sequence might come across as a kind of cheap, overtly sentimental shortcut, but it sets up the world (and the character) nicely and (like the rest of the movie) it’s really, really funny.
From there we jump cut to Mike’s first day at Monsters University, which is good because fifteen minutes of watching Mike filling out college applications would have been more grueling than the climax of “Man of Steel.” As Mike stumbles around campus, taking in all the amazing new people and things, so do we: there are giant monsters playing with Frisbees the size of UFOs, all manner of college life gleefully teased and monster-ized (like the art club where a fuzzy monster dumps a bucket of paint on itself and then slaps itself against a white canvas), and, in one particularly awe-inspiring moment, Mike looks down to see underwater monsters entering their own aquatic classes. The artistic and technological advancements from the first movie have created a world even richer and more bizarre, with the kind of Muppets-by-way-of-old-Godzilla-movies design aesthetic amplified and intensified to the nth degree.
In Mike’s first scaring class, he meets Sulley, a pompous monster who thinks that he can skate through class because he comes from a long line of impressively scary monsters. The delineation is immediately drawn: Mike isn’t all that scary (he looks like a cuddly green grape) but he is incredibly studious and prepared; Sulley has the raw talent but lacks discipline and an interest in the fundamentals. (This is illustrated brilliantly in a sequence where they’re trying to recapture a weird goat-creature mascot that Sulley has stolen from the rival college, Fear Tech.) They are almost immediately at odds, which leads to a disastrous occurrence in class, resulting in their expulsion from the scaring program. They manage to strike a deal with Dean Hardscrabble (a luxuriously wicked Helen Mirren), the headmistress of Monsters University, who has giant bat wings and skittering little legs like a centipede, that if they can win the annual Scare Games, based on the traditional Greek system, then they will be allowed back into the program. If they fail to win, however, they will be kicked out of Monsters University entirely.
Since all of the other fraternities have been filled, Mike and Sulley are forced to join Oozma Kappa, the nerd fraternity whose members include Don Carlton (Joel Murray), a middle-aged monster who has returned to college to learn about “the computers”; Art (Charlie Day), a philosophy major who looks like a furry Slinky toy; Squishy (Peter Sohn), a blobby, cube-like monster; and Terry (Sean Hayes) and Terri (Dave Foley) Hayes, a bickering, two-headed monster. It’s during the introduction of the Scare Games that the movie takes on a certain “Animal House”/”Midnight Madness” vibe, with the team hopelessly outgunned and at odds with each other (with an emphasis on odd). Of course, as these things go, they learn to work together, as a team, and triumph over their more fearsome competitors, with Mike and Sulley learning from one another and becoming better monsters in the process.
Director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, a storyboard artist at Pixar who joined the studio the same year that “Monsters Inc” was released, understands the audience’s preconception of the characters and the universe, and plays with them in some unique ways, like when Mike first gets to campus he goes to his dorm and says something like, “Behind this door will be my lifelong friend and companion,” and opens it to reveal Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), the scheming villain from the first film. Scanlon (and his co-writers Robert Baird and Daniel Gerson) subvert things further in the movie’s last act, when the message seems to be, very plainly, that having dreams doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily come true. It’s a subtle and startling subtext for a children’s movie, a genre defined by cheery wish fulfillment and the idea that if you want something bad enough, you can easily achieve it. In other words, if most kids’ movies say, “If you dream it, you can be it,” then “Monsters University” is more, “You want to be an astronaut? Well too fucking bad.” It also serves as a surprisingly nuanced exploration of the dynamics of heterosexual male friendship; just with lots more fur and fangs.
“Monsters University” isn’t perfect; it’s too long, the Pixar “woman problem” isn’t alleviated at all (unless a pack of demonic sorority girls furthers the feminist agenda) and has a jarringly weird extra climax set in the real world that more closely resembles an installment of “Friday the 13th” than anything in the Pixar canon. Still, it’s easily the most enjoyable animated film so far this year, one that is visually stunning, wickedly subversive, incredibly funny (Day’s character is a hoot), and (at times) lump-in-your-throat emotional. In fact, it’s probably the studio’s best feature since 2010’s “Toy Story 3.” It might be true that no one wanted a “Monsters Inc” follow-up, but everyone will be happy that we got one. [A-]