Monsters University (2013)
Pixar's latest outing with a continuation of one of their past films isn't the revelation that Toy Story 2 and 3 were, but it definitely isn't the misfire that Cars 2 was, either. This film comes at an important moment for Pixar, two years after the failure of Cars 2 (which was made almost entirely due to the first film's merchandising success) had ended their unprecedented streak of quality films and taken the luster off of their reputation. People were going to look at their next few films with a far more critical eye than they had before. Well, I can say that Monsters University shows that, when Pixar isn't obligated to make a movie to sell more toys, they know how to tell a good story, and tell it well. Monsters University is a very fun family comedy that takes classic college movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds and puts them in a nice, G-rated package while still carrying some real bite behind its roar.
The film follows Mike and Sulley (Billy Crystal and John Goodman), the two protagonists of Monsters, Inc., during their college days when they are studying to become "scarers" -- the monsters that travel to the human world and spook little kids in the middle of the night in order to harvest their "fear energy" to run their power plants. Since this is a family film, there aren't any masked slashers or long-haired ghost girls (that would be fun, but for a more adult film, and besides The Cabin in the Woods already kind of did that); instead, Mike and Sulley are a big blue Bigfoot and a little green cyclops, respectively, and the other monsters likewise look more like animals or kids' drawings than horror movie monsters. What follows is a Pixar/Disney take on all manner of college comedy tropes and gags, with Mike and Sulley getting into trouble with the administration (represented by Helen Mirren voicing a dragon/centipede headmistress) and with the fraternity Roar Omega Roar (led by Nathan Fillion as an alpha-male, frat-boy bully), and being forced to join the "loser" fraternity Oozma Kappa and lead them to victory in the Scare Games after a series of mishaps threatens to get them expelled.
None of this is really fresh ground; as mentioned, it's pretty much following a family-friendly version of the Revenge of the Nerds template. That doesn't stop this from being really funny and also kind of sweet, but for Pixar, it's hardly a stretch. Given what they've accomplished in films like WALL-E and the Toy Story films, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed. Then again, not everyone can make E.T. over and over again. And again, while this film's story isn't a knockout by Pixar standards, by anybody else's it's still very, very good. You don't have to have seen the first film to get this one outside of a few in-jokes, with all of the characters, new and old, coming off as fully fleshed-out... well, I can't really call them "human beings", so let's settle for "monsters". The jokes here all work well, whether they're low-brow slapstick or unique spins on gags from other movies (I'm surprised that they were able to homage Animal House's "paddle" scene in a G-rated film), and much of it has to do with both great writing and a solid voice cast led by Billy Crystal and John Goodman as the protagonists. Everyone gets some great moments, whether it's 2 Broke Girls' Beth Behrs as a three-eyed, fire-breathing sorority sister, Sean Hayes and Dave Foley as a two-headed, bickering Oozma Kappa member, Steve Buscemi as the roommate who will later become Mike and Sulley's nemesis, or Tyler Labine and Aubrey Plaza as the respectively over- and under-enthusiastic heads of the Greek council. It's not all jokes here, either; I was nailed to my seat during the third act with some of its big twists and set pieces, culminating in an awesome climax that I'm sure will scare the little ones, but which would make for a great introduction to proper horror movies. Then again, I shouldn't be surprised to see that coming from Pixar (the end of Toy Story 3 should've reminded me of how far they're willing to go).
Score: 4 out of 5
By Pixar's standards this is pretty good, but by anybody else's this is close to great. It's a worthy prequel and a very fun film in its own right, whether your 5 years old or 25. Check it out.