From the moment I heard the words "Monsters University," I experienced a weird combination of uninterested and pissed off. I didn't ask for a movie where Mike and Sully from Pixar's masterpiece Monsters, Inc. meet each other in college and experience family-friendly campus shenanigans (now un-family-friendly, that would have been interesting. But this is America, and animated movies are for children). Irking me further was a throwaway line in Monsters, Inc. that suggests Mike and Sully have known each other since they were in the fourth grade, and based on marketing, that part of their history would have to be retconned. It was the first Pixar film in years that I didn't see in theaters, and up until recently, I hadn't seen it at all. However, I am a completionist, especially when it comes to Disney and Pixar projects; I knew I'd be seeing it in all its mediocre glory eventually.
I don't know if my bottomed-out expectations are to blame, but having finally seen the damn thing, but I actually really liked it. It's not a top-tier Pixar effort, and I still can't justify its existence, but it's hilarious, gorgeously rendered, and tells a surprisingly good story about self-discovery. Some years before Monsters, Inc., the little, one-eyed, green monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) enters Monsters University with high hopes to graduate and work as a "scarer" for Monsters, Incorporated. As we are all aware, the screams of human children are what power the monster world, so a scarer is a position of high respect bordering on celebrity. James P. "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman), also kickstarting his education at Monsters U, comes from a family of prominent scarers. Being a large, blue, furry beast, scaring comes naturally to him. This leads to Mike and Sully butting heads, one being the self-trained and hard-working underdog, and the other being the spoiled douchebag riding by on a name and raw talent.
In spite of the cliched nature of the conflict, it's very well-executed. There's genuine truth to the idea that some people have natural talents and others don't, and that it doesn't have to dictate your measure of success. That, above its themes of challenging societal norms is the strongest aspect of Monsters University (because in the end, there's less a victory over societal norms and more of a compromise with them). You may not be able to get exactly what you want out of life, but you can still find your niche. Most endearing is Mike's character arc, which in most films of this nature, would conclude with him defying the odds and achieving his dream. That's not what happens, at least not exactly; he finds that he's best suited for a behind-the-scenes job as Sully's coach and advisor. Sully is treated with his fair share of character development too, admitting that he's terrified of the weight of his family's legacy and refusing to put in hard work. It makes their ultimate team up in the climax very satisfying, giving credence to their friendship that we all knew had to develop.
This all happens in the nooks and crannies of the larger plot, which involves the two teaming up with the fraternity Oozma Kappa to enter the Scare Games, and prove to Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that they belong in the scaring programing. The other members of the frat are essentially a ragtag group of one-dimensional personality traits, but their designs are great and their dialogue and animation provide the film's best jokes. Speaking of the animation, holy hell is this movie looks amazing. Textures are so touchable, the monster designs are varied and creative, and the animation for Mike, Sully, and most of the main characters is outstanding. I'm most impressed with Sully's character work, which manages to embody "entitled douchebag" to a T and still manages to make him lovable. While the overall premise still doesn't quite do it for me, the Pixar people inject Monsters University with so genuine heart and effort that the story could really be about anything and it would still entertain.
Some of the gags and plot points are a bit tired, and at least a few of them just plain don't work (Mike's school ID picture being the biggest botched joke of the film). There also seem to be sight gags that only exist for a joke in the moment, like the giant monsters on campus playing frisbee that are never seen again. It hurts the world-building is all. The only time the story meanders is when the rival frat humiliates Oozma Kappa by plastering a "cutsy" photo of them all over the campus (and I mean all over). It does nothing for the characters and is inconsequential, not to mention obnoxious to watch play out. Also, while we're in the critical corner, I think I prefer the more pastel-like color pallet of the original film verses this one's candy-colored aesthetic. Personal preference, I know, but it was nonetheless a bit distracting how overly sweet everything looked (especially when the story centers around "scary" monsters). The third act does at least appropriately darken, and Dean Hardscrabble's design is far and away the best of the new characters. I'm also a bit torn on how I feel about the vocals: on one hand, it's a joy to have Goodman and Crystal back doing their thing, and I can't imagine the characters being played by anyone else. However, they just don't sound like college-aged, and as much as that's a nitpick, it took me out of the story from time to time.
Monsters University is a nice surprise, not because I was naive enough to think that Pixar would produce a terrible movie, but because the 2010s have been home to their most mediocre efforts. It's a better and more thoughtful film than Brave, Cars 2, or Finding Dory, and though that bar is easy to clear, I'm still somewhat thrilled that it does. Its strengths lie in its themes, animation, and its comedy. Unlike most prequels, this movie works toward earning its place in the continuity, and even accomplished the impressive feat of reminding me why I like these characters so much in the first place. Now then, can we get an honest-to-god sequel already?