“Monsters University” is a visually sumptuous outing, its story squeaking by with a cadre of cutie patootie monsters and not-quite scares. The film, positioned as a prequel to the superior “Monster’s Inc,” depicts the development of an unlikely friendship between a pair of unorthodox scarers.
Young Mike Wazowski (voiced first by Noah Johnson, then later by Billy Crystal), idolizes the monsters who power his world by collecting energy from the screams of frightened children. As a youngster, Mike is entranced by the dangerous human world where he finds himself able to slip in unnoticed. Back in his own monster milieu, Mike’s diminutive size, cue-ball shape and lime-green skin tone are the subject of much derision. In response, Mike determines to become a “Scarer” and get the respect he craves.
Academic excellence earns Mike entry into the elite Scarer program at Monsters University. Here he meets the mighty Sulley, aka James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a big blue galumph dotted with violet spots. Sulley assumes that his natural ability to roar, along with his father’s famous legacy, makes him a shoo-in candidate, but Dean Hardscrabble expects more from her scarers than getting by on their connections or their innate talent.
Sulley and Mike may be more cuddly than fearsome, but Dean Hardscrabble, voiced with clipped British authority by Helen Mirren, is the film’s only frightening creature. An amalgamation of dragon, bat and centipede, she swoops down from high places, then, while carried along by a thousand hairlike legs, is impervious to Mike and Sulley’s charms. She stops short of displaying her physical strength, but our imaginations fill in that blank.
Hardscrabble expels Mike and Sulley from the program because she’s convinced Mike hasn’t got the chops to scare anyone and Sulley is lazy. Desperate to be readmitted and intellectually versed in all aspects of scaring, Mike makes a daring wager with Hardscrabble.
To win the bet, the pair must construct a team of Scarers from the only crew available, a dowdy group of nice guy monsters belonging to the Oozma Kappa (OK) fraternity. With the exception of Sulley, none of them have a frightening bone in their blobby bodies, but with determination, brains and optimism, they overcome their deficits.
It’s gratifying to see a children’s film emphasize knowledge as power, even if no female character, save Dean Hardscrabble, registers on its radar, and even if the film insists that without an accompanying talent, knowledge is a hollow exercise. During a light bulb moment, Sulley grasps that Mike’s smarts make up for Sulley’s dullness, while Mike accepts that Sulley’s talent is necessary to carry out Mike’s plans.
Capitalizing on the superior voicework of Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, John Krasinski, John Ratzenberger and of course, the multi-talented stars Crystal and Goodman, Monsters University is a comforting buddy flick. However, the film’s commitment to its feel-good messages drains it of tension and excitement. Dean Hardscrabble sent chills down my spine, but her brief appearances aren’t enough to sustain viewer interest — that is until the final act — largely consisting of a creative scare competition, that justifies the “Monster” name.
Problem is, we expect better than merely good from Pixar animation, and using the characters we’ve come to know and love as an excuse to make a film doesn’t sit well. Fans of the franchise, and parents looking for affordable entertainment, will attend regardless, but this time, there’s little more to “Monsters” than meets Mike’s Cyclopean eye.