Early in Pixar’s latest movie, Monsters University, Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) steps onto the campus of his college for the first time as a student and takes a deep breath. It’s a simple moment, and it’s done beautifully enough to signal that this prequel to the studio’s 2001 hit Monsters, Inc. is a rousing return to form. Finding hitherto unsuspected layers in Mike and James “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), this is not only the best Pixar movie since Toy Story 3. It’s also one of the better movies about college ever made. Oh, it’s good to have Pixar back like this.
The story picks up with Mike and Sulley meeting in college and taking an instant dislike to each other. No wonder. Sulley is a legacy kid from a prominent family who’s looking to half-ass his way through school, while Mike is a bookworm who sees Monsters University as the promised land and is determined to focus on his studies and nothing else. (In other words, Mike is me during my freshman year of college.) However, a squabble lands them both in the doghouse with Dean Hardscrabble, a fearsome creature with dragon wings, centipede legs, and Helen Mirren’s voice. She kicks them out of their major program, and since the one thing that Mike and Sulley have in common is their dream of working as scarers for Monsters, Inc., the two adversaries must work together to win their way back into the program by winning the Scare Games, a university-wide competition for the school’s Greek houses.
This casts Mike and Sulley in new lights and so does their relationship to their frat brothers when they join a rinky-dink fraternity full of outcasts so they can compete. The brothers are just as strongly characterized, including a scruffy hippie named Art (voiced by Charlie Day) and extremely fey conjoined twins named Terry and Terri (voiced by Dave Foley and Sean Hayes). Hilariously, Mike and Sulley’s future nemesis, Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi), turns up here as Mike’s super-nice roommate, though he turns by degrees into the backstabber we saw in Monsters, Inc.
They all contribute to the comedy, which is gratifyingly back on point here. Just as in the original, the animators have fun with the monsters’ various body shapes and textures — Art is basically a purple head on two widespread, fur-covered legs. They do well with the college campus setting transposed to the monster world, too. However, some of their best material surfaces in the various challenges that the monsters face as part of the Scare Games, with one asking the monsters to navigate a fake house while avoiding cutouts of teenagers who pop out from corners and say teenage things. (“But Daddy, I love him!”)
The comedy is the biggest reason why this movie is as good as it is, and yet even more impressive is the twist that comes after the conclusion of the Scare Games, which introduces a whole host of unforeseen complications. As Mike confronts the crushing realization that he might not be frightening enough to be a scarer at Monsters, Inc., the script reaches some of its sharpest and most moving dialogue. This is followed by a divinely inspired climax that has Mike and Sulley using their wits to keep from being trapped in the human world. This is the ingenuity and warmth we love in Pixar movies, and long may it remain.
The feature is accompanied by The Blue Umbrella, a thoroughly charming short film whose opening cityscape is rendered so realistically that at first I thought it was live-action footage. Denton singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe performs the bouncing, wordless vocal on the soundtrack, composed by Jon Brion. It’s almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Voices by Billy Crystal and John Goodman. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Written by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon. Rated G.