Back in 2001, Monsters,
Inc. was Pixar’s fourth feature–and the first not directed by John
Lasseter. The comedy-adventure introduced audiences to the nutty monsters James “Sulley” Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, to the ability of CG to create believable
fur–and to the exceptional directorial talent of Pete Docter.
is set several years before original film, when the Monster world is still fueled
by children’s screams. Mike (Billy Crystal) arrives at prestigious Monsters
University as the ultimate nerd, complete with retainer. He’s read every book
on scaring and collected trading cards of champion scarers. But can his
knowledge and enthusiasm make up for his decidedly un-scarey round shape and
On the first day of class he clashes with Sulley (John
Goodman), the scion of a prominent Monster family who moves with the blithe
arrogance of a high school quarterback. Sulley believes scaring is something
you don’t study, you just do—anathema
to the bookish Mike. Their conflict leads redoubtable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen
Mirren) to expel them from the scaring program.
To get back in, they must win the all-campus scaring competition.
But to enter, they have to belong to a fraternity, and the only one available
is the hopelessly out of it Oozma Kappa. Can a band of uncoordinated geeks be
remolded into campus champions? Of course they can, with Mike acting as tutor/master
sergeant. Even Sulley learns the importance of discipline and planning.
If much of the story is predictable – a kind of Revenge of the Nerds with extra eyes,
heads, tentacles and fur – it’s still a lot of fun. Director Dan Scanlon and his
crew do a great job of spoofing campus
life at an old university with buildings and activities steeped in tradition.
The Pixar animators have clearly grown more skillful in the
intervening years, and their software has undergone countless improvements. With
his prognathous jaw, ursine body and pop eyes, Sulley is obviously a lot of fun
to animate. The artists stretch and squash his features and limbs into
outrageous poses when he’s scaring someone. But they also get some surprisingly
subtle expressions by making tiny adjustments to the lid of Mike’s single eye.
Two underplayed but skillfully choreographed scenes shine as
examples of exceptional animation. The audience initially sees reluctant
roommates Mike and Sulley banging into each other in their cramped chamber. But
as their friendship develops, they learn to move in deftly coordinated ways
that suggest daily chores morphing a dance of good feelings. It’s a neat
juxtaposition, and whoever animated the second scene deserves a bonus.
Among the new characters, Dean Hardscrabble is suitably icy
and intimidating, although her facial features may remind viewers of the Grand
Councilwoman in Lilo and Stitch. At
Oozma Kappa, two of the monsters steal their part of the show: Scott “Squishy” Squibbles (Pixar director Peter Sohn), who’s so far out of it, he makes Mike
look hip, and Terri and Terry Perry (Sean P. Hayes and Dave Foley), a two-headed
dancer/sleight of hand magician who understands the importance of misdirection.
Their hijinks are often very funny, but the laughter can’t
disguise how thin the underlying story is. Monsters
University simply lacks the emotional core that made Monsters Inc. so endearing. Viewers believed in the unexpected but
real love Sulley and Boo shared. The friendships forged in the new film ring
true, but they don’t pack the same emotional punch.
Those caveats aside, Monsters
University proves Pixar’s B+ work still tops most other studios’ A game.