'Monsters University' is a scream
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The stock-in-trade at Pixar used to be miracles and wonder. But a creative conglomerate cannot necessarily be astonishing indefinitely, particularly if it's also a corporate concern. Which, for better or worse, Pixar is. And this is where the idea of quality control becomes particularly pertinent. Pixar has it, which means that "Monsters University," which would be an entirely iffy proposition in anybody else's hands, is at its worst mildly affection-inspiring and pleasurable, and at its best very affection-inspiring and pleasurable.
The movie is a prequel to the classic "Monsters, Inc.," which put lovable faces (and a noble motive) to the scary creatures that frighten little children in the dark. The heroes once again are affable blue big guy, Sulley (voiced by John Goodman), and the wisecracking but earnestly good-hearted green big-eye guy, Mike (Billy Crystal). And, as the title suggests, the movie concerns their formative years, higher-education-wise. Once enrolled at the title school, we learn that Mike is a quick and eager study at scaring, and he hopes his conscientiousness will compensate for the fact that the little fellow (he's big for an eye with legs, but small in stature by other standards) isn't all that naturally scary. Sulley, on the other hand, with his stature, fearsome roar and scaring pedigree (apparently Sullivan is a big name in the fright industry of the monster realm), doesn't have to work so hard at it, or so he believes. Their particular character quirks get the guys, who didn't meet up under the most auspicious of conditions, in hot water with the school's creepy-crawly giant insect dean (Helen Mirren), who tosses them both out of the college's "scare program." Faced with a grim future learning about the design of scream canisters (yes, some familiarity with the mythology of the first movie helps you get through the storyline), Mike comes up with a daring scheme for reinstatement. This involves joining a frat full of gentle-souled monster misfits and training them to compete in an on-campus scare Olympics of sorts. And guess who winds up joining these odd fellows so they can make quorum? Yep, Sulley.
The plotline does have its affinities with the much raunchier campus comedy classics "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds," but rest assured that director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird keep things squeaky-clean and pretty cute. It's in fact kind of awe-inspiring how deftly the movie modulates the scary and potentially grotesque elements of the various characters (some of whom have tentacles, multiple eyes, are actual slugs, and so on) so that the humor can remain lighthearted throughout. And it's also pretty nice that the movie finds clever ways within the story to put across its messages about friendship and teamwork. The emotional component of the character work here is more relaxed, less intense than what you see in the "Toy Story" movies, which feels right in the context of the relatively more farfetched concepts at work here. So what's in store here is not so much a computer-animation epiphany but a nice hang with some endearing characters, and some laughs along the way as we watch them evolve.
The movie is preceded by a short, "The Blue Umbrella," which I found sweet, cute and a little bit forced.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.