The Golden Age of Pixar may be over—for this reviewer, it ended with Up—but even the studio’s second-tier work is transporting. In Monsters University, an army of mouse-click magicians rewind the clock on one of their most popular properties, taking audiences back to the wild salad days of a fast-talking cyclops and his furry, gentle-giant companion. Pixar’s first official prequel is set in the same beast-populated universe as its predecessor—2001’s effervescent Monsters, Inc.—but the primary locale isn’t a wondrous workplace, but a sprawling Mecca of higher learning. For all the oddball creatures slithering down its hallowed halls, Monsters University could be any university; the animators lovingly recreate the dusty, shadowy ambience of ancient lecture halls, the cramped chaos of dorm life, and the bustle and sprawl of an evergreen campus. If every Pixar film is a doorway into another world, this one leads straight into the past—not just of its main monsters, but also of every state-school alum in the audience.
Yet as those clunky Cars films proved, a richly realized world is nothing without richly developed characters to occupy it. Thankfully, Monsters University boasts the return of the most lovable Pixar duo this side of Woody and Buzz. Speaking of the Toy Story twosome, their initial, antagonistic relationship is the clear model for Dan Scanlon’s academia-set flashback, whose most shrewd move is pitting its future-bestie heroes against each other. Years or maybe decades before the events of Monsters, Inc., one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal, subtly pitching his voice to an adolescent octave) is just a fresh-faced freshman, a bookish go-getter pursing a major in scaring, in spite of his less-than-terrifying stature. Barreling into his life is James “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman, sublimely recommitted), a lazy jock leaning hard on his natural talents and family name. It’s hate at first sight for these two, and Scanlon and his team of writers get a lot of mileage out of their yin-yang opposition.
True to its name, Monsters University brims with cleverly designed creatures, a student body worthy of the recently deceased Ray Harryhausen. What the movie lacks is its precursor’s human ace-in-the-hole—that pint-sized, inadvertent agent of chaos, Boo. More than just an adorable character, the mischievous moppet was also a primo plot device, and a catalyst for the first film’s spinning-top mayhem. Without her, Monsters University rarely manages such madcap comic inspiration; it’s more of a gentle, poky riff on college-comedy clichés, complete with a villainous, snobbish fraternity, a heroic, outcast fraternity, and a stuffy, intimidating dean (Helen Mirren, wonderfully severe). Forced to work together to stay enrolled in the scaring program, Mike and Sully end up competing in an Olympic-style tournament that’s never quite as funny or visually inventive as it could be. At times, it’s tough to say if the film is spoofing post-Animal House conventions or just halfheartedly adhering to them.
None of that quite diminishes the delight of seeing these characters again, or hearing the actors who voice them reprise their roles. (Though a grade-school prologue ever so slightly positions Mike as the protagonist, Sully steals the show—if only because Goodman plays a heel with amusing aplomb.) Rivalry shades slowly into friendship, and it’s endearing to watch this odd couple come together. But will newcomers to the world of scare floors and scream-harvesting agree? If Monsters University feels like a minor Pixar effort, it’s because its appeal hinges almost entirely on viewers’ established affection for Mike and Sully. Echoing but rarely enriching the pleasures of the original, the film is a charming footnote. Pixar can and has done better. Having now made a prequel, a couple sequels, and an old-school princess adventure, perhaps it’s time John Lasseter and company got back in the business of exploring new worlds.