Breathe a sigh of relief: Monsters University leans more towards the Toy Story 3end of the Pixar-sequels spectrum than the Cars 2 end. The Dan Scanlon-directed follow up to the 2001 hit Monsters, Inc. will mostly satisfy fans of the original with its attractive animation, talented voice acting, and clever gags.
But under the veneer of a good children's film lurks a quivering mass of fangs and tentacles far more bloodthirsty than any of the adorable "monsters" to be found in this franchise.
In case you missed the first film (it was released a whopping twelve years ago, after all), Monsters University is set in an alternate dimension where all of the creepy crawlies of the night live in relative harmony. The monster world runs on scream power harnessed at the Scare Factory, where professional "scarers" jump through doors to scare human children.
But how do you become a scarer? That is the question for little green eyeball with mouth, legs, and arms—Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal)—and large blue Bigfoot type James "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman). And Monsters University is the answer.
But gone is the partners-in-fright camaraderie of the first film: when they meet in college, Mike and Sully soon become sworn rivals.
This is a refreshing twist for a prequel—when Mike opens the door to meet his roommate for the first time, it's not Sully he finds, but the shy but likeable Randy (Steve Buscemi). A few clichés do creep into the plot, particularly around the Scare Games—Wait! It's a team of rivals! They simply must lose the first challenge due to the conflict of egos, only to scrape through because an opposing team gets disqualified! But on the whole, everything is novel enough to keep the audience entertained.
And Pixar delivers on the aesthetic brilliance for which the studio is known. The animation is great, especially the extreme facial expressions of the various monsters, who live up to the cuteness bar set by the original. Just when you think gibbering creatures spawned from the cracked and jagged nightmares of men far past the bounds of sanity can't get any more adorable, put them in middle school and give them braces.
The soundtrack (jazzed-up marching band music with a wide range of emotion) also deserves special recognition. It is composer Randy Newman's seventh venture with Pixar, and it will leave you feverishly hunting the internet for that one variation from that one song (when you really should be worrying about that deadline you have to make).
The voices behind the monsters are just as enjoyable: Billy Crystal gabs like no other, but John Goodman is troped to the max as the big dumb cool kid who relies on natural talent and his family name to coast through life, and he does it well enough to keep everyone laughing. The supporting cast is just as good—Julia Sweeney as the hilariously overbearing dorm Mom, and Helen Mirren as a wonderful Dean Hardscrabble, the intimidating head of the Scare program who is equal parts Professor McGonagall, Avril Lavigne, and Tim Keller.