After two straight subpar efforts, Pixar is finally back in the game -- if not completely at the top of it.
Ever since 2009's classic "Up," the Emeryville-based animation giant has fallen short of its own high standards. "Cars 2" was gorgeous to look at but lacked depth and heart. "Brave" was half a good movie but ultimately devolved into a predictable 'toon.
Along comes "Monsters University," which is at least consistently charming with flashes of the wit and emotion that have marked the best of Pixar. If it's not at the high end of the studio's range, it is certainly an engaging piece of work.
The film is a prequel to 2001's beguiling "Monsters, Inc.," which may be the studio's most underrated movie. Clever and good-hearted, it let us peek into the world where the monsters of our childhood live -- and into the bromance of walking eyeball Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and burly fright guy Sulley (John Goodman).
Apparently, Pixar struggled for several years trying to write a sequel to "Monsters, Inc." before settling on this look at how Mike and Sulley first met in school. From the time he visited Monsters, Inc. as a student at Frighten Elementary School, Mike has wanted nothing more than to go to Monsters University's prestigious Scare Program and become a top scarer at the place where kids' screams are made. He's dreaming a big dream, because even though he studies hard and is very bright, he simply isn't very scary.
Sulley, on the other hand, was born to be a big man on campus. He is a Sullivan, the son of a world-class scarer, so he presumes he can be a scarer without doing much work. Of course, these two mismatched monsters take an immediate dislike to each other.
That all starts to change when both are kicked out of the Scare Program by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). The only way back is for them to round up some other misfits (the Oozma Kappa fraternity) and enter the Scare Games -- a series of challenges that, if they win, can earn them a ticket back into Hardscrabble's good graces and the program.
What follows is a fun romp, loaded with neat references to Harry Potter's Hogwarts and "The Hunger Games" with a touch here and there of "Animal House" and a few sly nods toward what lies ahead for our two heroes (one involves just why Randy, one of their enemies in "Monsters Inc.," hates Sulley so much).
Director Dan Scanlon, a longtime storyboard artist at Pixar, has created a visually vibrant film with a campus rich in detail and full of delightfully weird monsters-in-training. There are a lot of them, and it's quite amazing how each has a singular personality and character traits.
Writers Scanlon, Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird manage to find room for life lessons amid all the fun. In particular, there are surprisingly hard truths about self-awareness and finding one's place in the world.
As is always the case with Pixar, the voice cast is spot-on. Crystal and Goodman are pitch-perfect as the sarcastic but always upbeat Mike and the lovable lug Sulley. Mirren is wickedly scary as Hardscrabble, and Steve Buscemi makes Randy an oily villain in the making. Among the supporting cast, Nathan Fillion ("Castle") is particularly good as arrogant Johnny Worthington, head of the rival Roar Omega Roar fraternity.
Oh, and actor John Ratzenberger -- who has been a voice in every Pixar film and is now something of a good-luck charm at the studio -- keeps his streak intact with a cameo appearance.
Preceded by another one of those striking and delightful Pixar shorts -- this one's a beauty called "The Blue Umbrella" -- "Monsters University" is fine family entertainment with something for the adults and a lot for the kids. That's always something deserving of a high grade.
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Rating: G (these monsters aren't scary)
Voice cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Helen Mirren
Director: Dan Scanlon
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes