It was inevitable that at some point audiences would return to the world of "Monsters, Inc." and our friends, one-eyed goblin Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and furry oaf Sully (voiced by John Goodman.) Cleverly, Disney decided to do a prequel instead of the standard continuation of the story, and chose to tell the story of how Mike and Sully first met: In college.
The set-up for "Monsters University" is rife with jokes, as it combines a teen rite of passage with the world of monster. But as cute and cuddly as Mike, Sully, and their cast of crazy friends are, there’s something missing from this adventure.
The film opens with a grammar school age Mike visiting the Monsters, Inc. factory with his school. Because of his size and genial personality, he is ridiculed when he says he wants to grow up and be a "scarer." (A scarer is a monster that has the talent to sneak into children’s rooms at night, scare the bejeezus out of them, and collect their screams, which create energy.) But Mike is so loveable that a future scaring people is probably not in his cards. Until, that is, one of his heroes suggests he go to MU - Monsters University - so he can learn how to be a world-class scarer.
Cut to many years later, and off Mike goes to his first day at the university. There he meets his new roommate, which happens to be Randy Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi), a lizard-esque monster that has a different type of role in the first "Monsters" film. Here, he’s a geek that wants to fit in and eventually gets in with the wrong crowd. When Sully arrives, having a pedigree of a famous scarer father and a cocky attitude to match, Mike is impressed but also annoyed. The two end up being competitors at first, but then cohorts working to win a competition that will solidify their place at the school.
But there are those that want to stand in the way. One is Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), who is a legendary scarer and very particular with who she thinks will survive as a student in her university. There’s also the mean fraternity brother Johnny Worthington (voiced by Nathan Fillion) who, ironically, can’t seem to find anyone’s worth but his own.
On Mike’s side are his new fraternity brothers the Oozma Kappa headed by Scott "Squishy" Squibbles (Pete Sohn) a kind-hearted sophomore who still lives with his mother. There’s also Art (Charlie Day) an odd monster that looks like a big "M," Terri & Terry Perry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley) a two-headed monster that is as goofy as it is inventive. And lastly, Don (Joel Murray) who is a middle-aged monster who lost his job and decided to go back to school to learn to be a scarer. The joke here is that none of them is particularly scary.
These crazy cast of characters are a small group of many that inhabit the university and assist and complicate Mike and Sully’s lives. But in the end they learn to work together, find their strengths, and figure out what friendship is all about.
It’s cute, right? It certainly is. But as for the usual hilarity that befits a Pixar movie, it’s surprisingly lacking in belly-laughs and clever humor. There are some fun gags about college, but all of that will be lost on kids. The adults will smile, but it’s not enough to really win them over. There’s a funny sequence involving a challenge that includes scaring children vs. scaring teens that is especially hilarious, but those moments are few and far between.
Don’t get me wrong, Director Dan Scanlon and the writing team of Daniel Gerson ("Cars") and Robert L. Baird ("Meet the Robinsons") keep things moving, and there are some fun ideas interspersed. All in all, though, it feels like a TV episode rather than a big screen outing. The voice talent is perfect, it’s colorful, and there are some chuckle-worthy sight gags, but this is a film that will make you smile rather than guffaw -- though, to be fair, in a summer of cars exploding and superheroes smashing villains, I guess an hour-and-a-half smile isn’t so bad.