Dean Hardscrabble: Scariness is the true measure of a monster. If you’re not scary, what kind of monster are you?
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is Pixar’s attempt at an origin story, for not only two of its most beloved characters, but also the origin of their great friendship. Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), the unstoppable pairing who shattered scream records in MONSTERS INC, weren’t always the best of friends, nor were they always such natural scarers. And so Pixar and director, Dan Scanlon, bring us back to Mike and Sully’s college days, where they learned the tricks of their very particular trade and where they met for the very first time. In doing so though, Pixar proves that even A students can get a B once in a while.
The story begins long before the first day of college. A toddler sized Mike Wazowski is on a field trip with his fellow monsters to the Monsters Inc energy plant. No one takes him seriously or wants to be his field trip buddy and when they get to the scare floor, he cannot see a thing through the crowd. Demonstrating early signs of gutsiness, he sneaks past everyone and ends up in the middle of all the scaring action. His life is forever changed and his future is clear to him. He will be a scarer. With this, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes a misstep with its very first foot forward.
The trouble is that we already know Mike doesn’t make this dream come true. Is the message here that we should not try to be something we’re not, that we shouldn’t dream big? And the easy routes continue with one obvious set up after another. When Mike meets Sully, it is clear that one is a natural while the other gets all his scares from theory and books. Clearly, these two will need to learn to work together in order to find a middle ground between these extremes. But first, there has to be some healthy competition. There is even a big campus tournament announced that we know will be pivotal to this friendship at a later point.
The path to a great friendship is not always direct or clear. And despite all the seemingly plain setup at the beginning of the film, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes many unexpected steps to get to its conclusion. While I applaud them for circumventing the very same conventions they established in the first half of the film, the new directions felt more uncertain then original, as if they didn’t quite know where they were going or how to get there. It was very organic in that sense but also uneven.
All the same, it is still a pleasure to spend time with Mike and Sully again, as well as their new college pals and professors (with voice talent as varied as Dave Foley, Sean Hayes, Charlie Day and Helen Mirren, as the deliciously dark dean of the university). They are two of Pixar’s more endearing and relatable characters and having them in this familiar college setting only enhances that connection with the audience. It may fail to resonate emotionally the way MONSTERS INC does, but college isn’t about depth; it’s about having a good time, which MONSTERS UNIVERSITY certainly is. It’s just not the kind of higher learning experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.