Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is only a funky little green eyeball of a monster, but that doesn't stop him from enrolling in Monsters University to become the greatest scarer of the world. There he meets a big fluffy monster called Sulley (John Goodman), who comes from a long line of famous scarers, but is a bit of a slacker relying more on his physical shape than knowledge. He soon goes head-to-head with Mike and soon they become fierce competitors - but during the first exams their rivalry gets them expelled from the scaring program...
When Pixar had released its fourth movie Monsters, Inc. in what were still the early days the of computer-generated animation movie, it became an instant success. The concept of a monster world whose power sources rely on the screams of the human world's children was pure Pixar material and although the script was not really flawless or free from Disney's influences, it was the by far most original idea of the studio yet. At that time, Pixar was not thinking about regularly producing sequels, so the story of the movie had been closed off and Monsters, Inc. was seen as a standalone movie for a long time.
When tensions between Pixar and Disney came to a head in summer 2004 and Pixar openly began to shop around for a new distribution partner, Disney's then-boss Michael Eisner reminded Pixar owner Steve Jobs that Disney not only fully owned their movies, but also the sequel rights - and would be more than capable of producing them without their help. While Pixar was still contemplating options, all the while working on current projects which would still be released under the Disney banner as per contract no matter what, Michael Eisner set up the in-house Disney CGI animation studio Circle 7 solely for producing sequels to some of the most lucrative Pixar movies. One of them was Monsters, Inc. 2, the others Finding Nemo 2 and Toy Story 3 - the latter being the one pushed ahead as the first project.
All these plans were, however, completely scrapped after Disney and Pixar had come to terms at the end of 2005 with Pixar being acquired by Disney and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull becoming the new bosses of Disney's Animation studio, which included a fully-independent Pixar. Everything made by Circle 7 was basically thrown away after Pixar had decided it was not even close up to their standards and the sequel business would be put on hold in favour of other original Pixar projects already in development. Rumours about a possible Monsters, Inc. sequel abounded, but nothing came forward until 2010, when Pixar finally announced that there would not be a sequel, but a prequel.
Apparently a script treatment prepared by Circle 7 about Mike and Sulley, the protagonists of the first movie, getting lost in the human world after they try to visit the little girl that got them into so much trouble in the original story, was fortunately abandoned. Pete Docter, who had the original idea of Monsters, Inc. declined to work on the proposed prequel because he was already heavily involved into his own next movie, but remained pro forma on board as a consultant and executive producer like his colleagues Lee Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. The only one of the original directors not getting any mention is David Silverman, probably because he never was a real member of Pixar in the beginning.
Originally the Pixar animator and director of the Oscar-winning short Presto Doug Sweetland was attached to the production, but he seems to have been replaced so early in the process that there is barely a mention of him. Instead, first-time director Dan Scanlon was chosen, a storyboard artist and former Disney animator who had joined Pixar in 2001, but had no connection with Monsters, Inc. While he became the sole director - a job that was split up between three people on the original - he had the two co-writers Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson at his side, who actually had worked on the original and so had the advantage of knowing the characters very well.
The chosen title, Monsters University, actually fully describes the basic idea of the movie - Mike's and Sulley's college days. It was a very safe choice, but also not a very original one. While Monsters University was not a remake of any specific movie, the genre of the college comedy in all its forms and shapes provided a lot of material the writers were able to draw from. At this point the main problem of the movie manifests itself: college shenanigans including a competition - no sports, but scaring - as the main idea only make a very lazy and extremely predictable story that even comes up with the same conflict between the two protagonists as in the original. Like Monsters, Inc., the sequel has all the possibilities of creating something amazing and new, but only comes up with a quite medicore plot that relies solely on characters, dialogue and animation . While this has still worked somewhat with the original movie, the prequel suffers much more from the weak story that could have been so much more.
Despite the lack of a really amazing story, the script still has a lot of good sides. Giving the viewer even more background of the monster world and how monsters learn to scare is no less than fascinating and is one of the major highlights of the movie. But it is also a very character-driven story which puts Mike Wazowski into the spotlight and explores in a somewhat moralistic and even dubious way why he ended up only as an assistant to Sulley and not a scarer himself. Strangely, this part of the plot closely mirrors that of Ratatouille, where the inept Remy never actually becomes a cook despite the message "anyone can cook!" being heralded throughout the movie. In Monsters University, it seems to be "anyone can scare", but in the end the moral seems to be more like "accept your fate, you'll never be a scarer", which is kind of a sad thing for a movie to say that just wants to be fun.
Monsters University actually succeds mostly in being a very funny movie, but the edge the predecessor still had is not really there anymore. There is a lot of cute and harmless humour, cracking dialogue and a huge amount of enthusiastic references to all things college and university, but the real subversiveness and almost cynical gags of Monsters, Inc. have been almost completely left out, making the movie much more child-friendly. The university is a carefully sanitized version not even of the reality, but of all those college comedies, some of which have a lot of inappropriate stuff which would not remotely be able to make it into a movie released under a Disney banner. It's the perfect university with the beautiful campus everybody wants and the quite stereotypical collection of jocks, nerds and all your typical sororities, all in a handy little bundle only roughly translated into the monster world.
What still makes Monsters University quite enjoyable are the strong characters, some of which are new creations, but others make an encore appearance from the first movie. Among those are, of course, the two main protagonists Mike Wazowski and James "Sulley" P. Sullivan, without whom the whole movie would have lost its main attraction. They are again voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman, who turn in another dazzling performance, but are not just playing themselves - thanks to the original movie, they have been so much linked with their roles that Mike and Sulley are not just Crystal and Goodman in disguise, but have become their very own characters. But they're not the same old monsters everyone remembers from their previous, or better following adventure, because their roles are almost reserved with Sulley being the literal party animal and Mike the earnest, but still somewhat happy-go-lucky career student. The story actually centers somewhat on Mike with Sulley actually being somewhat of an antagonist - at the start of the story, he is nothing like the cuddly monster he later becomes.
The only other major character from the original appearing in the prequel is Randall Boggs, who is surprisingly not a major villain here and starts as Mike's friendly roommate before he gets lost somewhere in the further developments of the story after the first act. He only pops up occasionally and after his promising introduction he just becomes one of the numerous background characters. Steve Buscemi also returns as Randall's voice, but since his role really amounts only to a guest appearance, he is not really able to do much with his character except to switch from nice Randall to ticked-off revenge seeking Randall, which at least explains the later rivalry between him and Sulley.
The many secondary characters are a whole boatload of fun, but there are so many of them that most viewers will be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer multitude, it might be even difficult for the younger audience to keep them all apart. Fortunately, the students are separated by sororities and the one that matters most in the plot has the fewest members. Mike and Sulley depend on the lovable loosers of Oozma Kappa to get back into the scaring program and not get kicked out of the university - there are just four of them. Don Carlton, who tries his luck by enrolling as a "mature student" to learn something new after being downsized, is a friendly, round grandfather figure of a monster with tentacles instead of hands and the voice of American actor Joel Murray, who actually sounds rather nondescript and only a little funny - but since this is one of the qualities of his character, this is quite okay.
The other three Oozma Kappa members are mainly good for slapstick and other sight gags, since their characters are not really fully developed. Terri and Terry are a cute, double-headed, four armed orange monster constantly arguing with themselves but also slowly coming to terms with their twin existance - they are voiced quite humorously by the relatively unknown Sean Hayes and comedian Dave Foley, who returns to Pixar after more than a decade after his lead role in A Bug's Life. Art is quite the hippie of the bunch, studying new age philosophy and looking like a lovely cross between an Aardman plasticine creation and a hairy muppet - thanks to the nicely whining voice of Chris Day, who even sounds a little like Jim Henson and seems to be an homage to his creatures. Maybe the saddest looser of them all is Scott Squibble a.k.a. Squishy, who is quite enthusiastic and easily excited, but also rather easy to frighten. His distinct voice did not come from an actor, but from Pixar animator Peter Sohn, who had first branched into voice work during his work on The Incredibles and after his temp track for Ratatouille proved to be so good that it was left in.
While most of the secondary roles had not been very prominently cast, there were some major exceptions. For Dean Hardscrabble, the imposing headmaster of Monsters University, the filmmakers scored a major win by casting the great Helen Mirren in the role, who gives her character the prefect regal pitch. But the filmmakers seem to have made her role little too serious - she is not allowed a single chuckle and is just about the one chararacter of the movie who is quite impressive, but not actually funny. Scaring instructor Professor Knight fortunately is with his rigorous, but also sometimes quite humorous teaching style and the voice from british actor Alfred Molina matches his lines and looks - sadly the little dinosaur of a monster only appears in a few scenes of the movie. And there are also two almost traditional guests: John Ratzenberger and Bob Peterson both reprise their roles as the Snowman Yeti and Roz, but their appearances are unfortunately only very short
What the movie sorely lacks in terms of story, it almost, but not fully makes up with its gorgeous design and animation. Next to Dreamworks, Pixar has always been an industry leader in computer-generated animation and Monsters, Inc. was one of their greatest technical breakthroughs all the way back in 2001 and the prequel is nothing less than that. Many other movies of the studio had already successfully portrayed a natural environment, but Monsters University brings the digital design to a whole new level. The college campus with its many intricately designed buildings may look little bit too perfect and slick, but at the same time it is so lifelike that it seems real-life backgrounds have been combined with CGI characters. As a special challenge, the movie happens over the course of several months and the whole environment is shown in two different seasons.
This time with no humans involved, Pixar was able to bring the character design to the highest level. Previously, the studio had always struggled with human characters, but with these out of the way except in one small scene in which they still look problematic, the design team was able to come up with an amazingly diverse collection of monsters, who appear here in vast amounts in all shapes and sizes. Most of them are only deep background characters and are not even very detailed, but those appearing closer to the camera dazzle with a level of intricacy which has been infinitely improved over the look in Monsters Inc - this is, of course, especially noticeable on Mike, Sulley and Randall. But all monsters look amazing, especially those with fur, which has become more and more realistic together with lots of other completely natural-looking textures of all kinds.
In contrast to the amazing visuals, the musical accompaniment is only average, despite the fact that Pixar had again hired Randy Newman to compose the score. But his compositions do not even come close to the originality of Monsters Inc. and are missing their jazzy sparke the most - instead the focus is mainly on jaunty, but forced marching tunes with very simple melodies and some very generic background score that does not sounds very much like Newman's usual standard. There are actually some jazz tunes on the soundtrack album itself, but in the movie these are barely heard, not bringingthe swinging feeling of the original back at all.
The most recognizable piece of score was not even composed by him - the only piece of really good jazz in the whole soundtrack comes from the Marchfourth Marching Band, a relatively unknown American performance group whose song Gospel was probably a part of the temporary soundtrack, but was surprisingly left in - maybe because Randy Newman was not able to come up with a suitable replacement. This is maybe the weakest soundtrack of a Pixar movie yet and certainly not one whose tunes you will be humming when the movie is over.
Monsters University was not really a movie that needed to be made, but it is also not only a cheap production made solely for cashing in on the original. There is a lot of production value primarily in the animation, design and acting, but with such a weak script not fully taking advantage of all the amazing possibilities, the movie could have been a lot more and almost feels a little like a direct-to-video release and not the $200 million affair it had become. The scope and uniqueness of the original were admittedly a tough act to follow, but this is, after all, Pixar, who should really be able to come up with something better than Monstery University. But with the enormeous financial, if not critical success of the movie it will be going into the studio's history books as one of their good decisions and another reason for turning more of their previous productions into franchises.
At first, Monsters University was rumoured to be a 2012 Halloween release, but since the studio has usually had more success during the summer, the movie was released starting June 20 all over the world after earlier premieres at film festivals in Seattle, Sydney and Los Angeles. It became a huge boxoffice success, even outperforming the original with taking in almost $270 million in the USA alone and an additional $475 Million overseas. A huge marketing campaign, lasting more than twelve months in its most intensive phase, made sure that the movie would be a success despite the fact that the critics were not all unanimously keen on Monsters University. The lack of a proper story was cited the most and some even rightfully asked if Pixar is slowly losing it's edge.
It all boils down to this: Monsters University is not a bad movie or even unwatchable, but considering Pixar's once high standards, the gorgeous animation and the wonderful voice acting cannot make up for the inexcusably medicore storytelling.
Monsters University was released less than six months after the cinema premiere starting at the end of October in the USA with European releases coming only with a delay of one or two weeks - considering it took Disney and Pixar almost a year to release the original movie back in 2002, this is certainly fast. As with most previous Pixar releases, there are still a lot of bonus materials (albeit not in the scope of the Monsters, Inc. DVD), but they are Blu-Ray exclusive and save for the audio commentary and the non-related short film do not appear on any of the DVD releases, which are single-disc only.
Because of the lack of bonus materials, I went for the most cheap option and got the British DVD release despite the PAL speedup problem - but the high price of the Region 1 DVD would only have been worth it if there were more extras available. Despite the missing bonus materials, the DVD presentation is virtually flawless and Pixar was at least so nice to put the commentary and the short film on the disc. Nevertheless, considering the wealth of extras on the Monsters, Inc. DVD from twelve years ago, this policy of neglecting the DVD format is very disappointing.