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.

Image: Disney / Pixar

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.

Image: Disney / Pixar

All of this makes Monsters University a well-done children's film, by today's standards. If you go to see it, you and whoever you take with you will probably enjoy it as well.

But that alone does not mean this is the wisest sort of tale to be telling children.

Anthony Esolen, an English professor at Providence College, wrote a sharp, tongue-in-cheek book called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. The fifth way he names is to replace the fairy tale with political clichés and fads. Fairy and folk tales, he says—while often violent and dark and awfully traditional—play an essential part in forming our psyches, our souls. A key benefit of the folk tale is that it teaches that "good is good and evil is evil, and the former will triumph and the latter will fail."

Adults, in their misery, know better. But, Esolen argues, it is of paramount importance that children not know better. While they're still being formed as human beings, they need to believe that there are dragons, that evil exists, and that those dragons can be killed. Not that seeing the world in stark black and white alone is a healthy thing either, but as Esolen says, "the subtler colors of the sky will come later."

Image: Disney / Pixar

The Monsters films, while funny and cute, aren't fairy tales. There is no hero, and no villain, in Monsters University. In fact, the villains of fairy tales become the heroes of this film. Thus it teaches kids not that the night is dark and full of terrors, but that it is dark and full of adorable fuzzy things.

By making monsters adorable, Monsters University destroys the meaning of the word monster. And the wisdom of tradition and faith, which remind us that bad things are very real, tells us that children must know the meaning of that word.

For the adults who wrote the film and the parents who will go to see it—grown-ups who have enough perspective to recognize the value of internal struggles and tragic flaws—the "monsters" theme is a clever device. But the question remains: is it the best thing for the moral formation of a child?

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When you go see Monsters University, you might want to leave the kids at home.

The Family Corner

Monsters University is rated G, with no objectionable language or potty humor. There are a few hints at college party life, in the form of a few fleeting glimpses of red Solo cups and people playing ping pong instead of beer pong. There are also a few spooky moments, but nothing that had children in the audience in tears.

Monsters University
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(17 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Dan Scanlon
Run Time
1 hour 44 minutes
Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
Theatre Release
June 21, 2013 by Pixar Animation Studios
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