Disney Pixar in recent years have been more interested in sequels and prequels than developing original ideas. Finding Dory, a sequel to Finding Nemo, has just been announced for 2014 and in 2011 they returned us to the Cars universe, resulting in their weakest film to date. Last year Brave was a pleasant exception to this trend. However, the announcement of a prequel to Monsters Inc. was welcomed because Inc. has always been one of my favourite from the studio. Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) are two of their most inventive creations and in Monsters University we find out just how their inseparable friendship originated. Set amongst a frat house underdog formula reminiscent of Animal House this is perhaps not one of the studio’s strongest narratives, but it is a very funny film with commendable morals, striking animated details, and that moving camaraderie at the core.
Ever since Mike was a youngster and visited Monsters Inc. on a school field trip he dreamed of studying at the prestigious Monsters University to become a scarer. His pessimistic cohorts, despite his unbridled enthusiasm and fierce dedication to study, ridicule his bulbous stature and un-scary appearance. He immediately befriends his roommate, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), but crosses paths with the brawny and antagonistic Sully, a carefree slacker who believes that lineage and his natural scariness will be enough to pass him. When they find themselves mutual outcasts and forced into an unpopular fraternity house, Oozma Kappa, they are given an ultimatum by the Dean of the University – win the annual Scare Games and be accepted back into the scare program. Mike and Sully have to assimilate their skills if they have any chance of competing.
The recurring voice talents of Crystal, Goodman and Buscemi are exceptional, as expected, but there is also a terrific supporting cast of surprisingly renowned actors who help surround Mike and Sully with oddball new characters. This includes their suitably strange Oozma Kappa colleagues – amongst them Don Carlton, a salesman turned mature-age scare student, and Squishy, whose mother has opened her home for her son’s fraternity - and the smarmy, bullying leader of a rival fraternity, Johnny Worthington.
There is an inspiring message streamlined throughout this film, which gives it a pinch of the emotional resonance present in the predecessor. If you have a dream for your future, an aspiration you will stop at nothing to achieve, don’t let anyone get in your way. Mike isn’t scary and yet he is fearless and wholly committed. Through hard work Mike becomes supremely knowledgeable in the theory of scaring, one feature Pixar creative has taken full advantage of. As we learn in Inc. children’s screams are essential for harvesting energy, and scarer creativity is an important lesson to learn. Sully, in appearance, is a scary monster, but inside he is terrified of failing the legacy built by his father. You can see the dynamic duo from Inc. begin to formulate from mutual detestment to shared admiration.
Remaining confined within the grounds of the university does mean it feels a little slight, and the nerd vs. jocks formula certainly isn't the freshest of moulds to set this burgeoning friendship in. But this is a richly imagined world, and there is an extraordinary level of detail. Every frame of this film is busy with colourful activity, and the immersive 3D visuals are worth the look alone. It is also a very funny film. There is an abundance of visual humour, but the writing is sharp too.
Monsters University is fun. While it doesn’t match the originality and heart of a masterpiece like Inc. it remains solid family entertainment and gives viewers a welcomed chance to experience another wild Mike and Sully adventure.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.