'Monsters University' gives it the old college try
'Scariness is the true measure of a monster," says the big-winged, centipede-like dean who presides over the venerable institution with its diverse student body of the two-headed and tentacled, the dino-tailed and taloned, the five-orbed and furry, the rooster-faced and the scorpion-bodied.
And, with a class of incoming freshmen, add to that roster a diminutive, one-eyed, green and toothy Mike Wazowski, and the blue and purple-spotted horned galumph, James P. Sullivan.
The stars of 2001's Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. are back in Monsters University - a perfectly acceptable but anything but extraordinary prequel that explains how the scream-inducing best buds, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), first met: sharing bunk beds in a college dorm.
A G-rated, CG-animated affair aimed squarely at the single-digit crowd (members of the target audience weren't even gleams in their parents' eyes when Monsters, Inc. came out way back in the early Aughts), Monsters University actually has a lot in common, plotwise, with another current release, the R-rated Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson comedy The Internship. Both films feature misfit protagonists who find themselves in a campus setting where they must compete in a series of challenges to prove their mettle and ensure their livelihoods.
Monsters University, with its ivied halls, hallowed traditions, and supernaturally inclined curriculum (required course: Scaring 101), also owes something to that British boarding school where Harry, Hermione, and company learned their stuff. In fact, Dean Hardscrabble, the arthropod academic who runs Monsters U., is voiced by Helen Mirren - sounding very much as if she once taught at Hogwarts.
Pixar veteran (but first-time director) Dan Scanlon and his team of artists and renderers throw their wildly clashing wild things into a familiar world of fraternity and sorority houses, bustling cafeterias, and leafy quads. Mike and Sully meet cute but quickly turn rivals - the former, a classic nerd (he has check boxes on his to-do list), is taken in by the reject Oozma Kappa gang, a dweebish crew of underdogs. (Their initiation ritual is interrupted when one of the members' moms waddles down the basement steps to do a load of wash.)
Meanwhile, Sully is embraced by the hottest frat house on campus, Roar Omega Roar, a team of swaggering jocks whose futures seem certain: success as scarers. But as the Scare Games begin, it's Mike and his Oozma Kappa brethren who show their pluck, knocking off the competition until only OK and ROR are left standing.
Monsters University is cute, and funny, and the animation, though not exactly inspired, is certainly colorful. But if originality is the true measure of creativity, then Mike and Sully's feature-length backstory manages only a passing grade.
Monsters University *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Dan Scanlon.
With the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, and Aubrey Plaza. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
1 hour, 50 minutes
G (mild scares)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact Steven Rea