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One of my absolute favorite Pixar films is Monsters Inc. When I first watched it back in 2001, the movie's charm and charisma swept me away. I loved how Team Pixar was able to assemble a story that explained (in a childlike fantasy way) how the world of monsters intersected with the world of human children and also include a strong emotional connection between the film's two main characters, Mike and Sully, and their little ward Boo. After Finding Nemo it's my favorite Pixar movie of all-time.
When the Disney/Pixar hybrid entity announced that they were doing a sequel to Monsters Inc, and that it would be a prequel called Monsters University, I was immediately skeptical. Without going into end spoilers for Monsters Inc, we left Mike and Sully's world in a changed place than where the story began. By going backward in time and showing us how Mike and Sully got into the scare business, Monsters University might not be able to live up to the emotional power that the first film had.
And yeah, that's what happened with Monsters University. It's great to see John Goodman and Billy Crystal come back and play their respective blue fuzzy and green one-eyed monsters. The world of the monsters is one that is rich enough to be explored in more detail, and by diving into their schooling we get to enjoy more of that worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the emotional journey that Mike and Sully go on -- meeting each other for the first time and taking the first steps toward becoming lifelong friends -- doesn't live up to the greatness inherit in the first film. Putting aside the smaller details, we already know how the Monsters University story wll play out, so the tension is lowered somewhat.
New secondary characters are introduced, such as the dragon-like Dean of the school (voiced by Helen Mirren, who's great), but it's hard to find any that really breakout and emerge as fun to look at (or listen to) characters. While the gang of new monsters is enjoyable, it's at a passible level only. Apart from the aforementioned Dean, there's no one else that really comes off in the same fun way as Mike's girlfriend Celia or the gruff old lady Roz from Monsters Inc. Genre staple guy Nathan Fillion plays a jock monster that serves as a watered down foible for Sully and Mike, but he never gets to be a truly worthy adversary.
Where the story and characters could have done with extra work, the animation is top notch Pixar quality. There's 12 years separating the two Monsters movies, and the technological improvements are easy to see when you look closely at the lighting, shading and detail of Sully's body hair. There's a moment near the start of Monsters University when Mike's bus drops him off at his new school and I could swear that the bus looked photorealistic. When the camera comes closer in to the faces of Mike or Sully you see the tiny imperfections that you would find on any person's face, and the reaction it produces is quite remarkable. Pixar is this close away from crossing the uncanny valley, if they ever needed to.
Personally, I feel that Monsters University didn't need to be a prequel. It should have been set after Monsters Inc and had Mike and Sully going back to scare school to educate the next generation of scarers how they needed to think differently in a post-Monsters Inc world. I think that a bunch of stuff from the plot of MU could have found homes in this sequel idea; for example, Mike could have found out something from Sully's time at school that forced him to reexamine their friendship, and Sully could have been faced with overcoming a challenge that plagued him as a student. That way the events of MI still have relevance and can be played forward, advancing the story rather than taking a step back and freezing any chaarcter development.
Even for gruff old bastards like me, Monsters University is still worthy of a watch just for seeing Mike and Sully back, but it's not the special kind of quality, you've got to own the movie that Monsters Inc definitely is. Little kids probably won't care at all and just like the funny monsters, so keep that in mind as you make your final decision.
Review Score: 60 / 100
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