The idea of a prequel to Monsters, Inc sounds like a comedown for Pixar, the studio behind animations like Wall-E and Up. Still, while Monsters University can’t claim outright originality, this is a far richer movie than most were expecting.
Monsters University is inventive and entertaining. It’s a surprisingly resonant origin story for kid-scaring buddies Mike (the walking eyeball) and Sulley (the big furry lump). In the 2001 film we learned how the screams of frightened kids power the city of Monstropolis. In the new film, the focus is on training the elite monsters who raid the human world, with students Mike and Sulley super-keen to join the gang.
We know that Mike and Sulley achieve their goal, yet somehow the outcome is never taken for granted. That’s mostly because this movie is daring with its characterisation. It’s rare for a family movie to be built around folk who aren’t likeable, and these two are clearly going about things the wrong way. Swotty Mike (a perky Billy Crystal) knows the college reading list backwards, but we suspect that real scariness needs to be earned, not learnt from books. Meanwhile, Sulley (a hang-loose John Goodman) hails from an esteemed dynasty of scarers, making him a combo of laziness and arrogance.
True to buddy-pic formula, Mike and Sulley have some bonding to do, which unfolds via a tournament to crown the scariest undergrads. Amid the jocks versus nerds knockabout (mounted with Pixar’s best madcap precision), the writing touches on sensitive, grown-up subject matter. After all, how do we square our boundless ambitions with the crushing realities of luck and our personal limitations?
All of which is right in tune with the Pixar tradition of allowing adults to ponder while diverting the kids with brightly hued fun. There’s slightly too much sports-flick cliché holding the structure together for Monsters University to rank up there with the Toy Story trilogy. But it has enough of the right stuff to haunt the imagination long after the immediate buzz of its fluffy-furred cuteness has melted away. For a mere prequel, that’s a result.