In Pixar's "Monsters University," a prequel to 2001 "Monsters, Inc.," our expert "scarers" to be — the wisecracking pipsqueak Mike Wazowski and the burly James B. Sullivan — are college freshmen with high aspirations.
Pixar, too, knows something about expectations. Thanks to the gentle poetry of "Up," the cosmic romance of "WALL-E" and the unlikely artist portrait of "Ratatouille" (not to mention others), the mantle is high for Pixar, a paragon of pop culture.
But lately, the studio hasn't been living up to its uniquely high standard. "Monsters University" follows two subpar efforts, "Cars 2" and "Brave," both of which lacked Pixar's usual inventiveness. The digital animation outfit, it turned out, is human after all.
"Monsters University" is neither a bold return to form nor another misfire, but a charming, colorful coming-of-age tale that would be a less qualified success for all but Pixar. The profusion of sequels is indeed dismaying for a studio that so frequently has prized originality. But "Monsters University" is nevertheless pleasant, amiably animated family entertainment.
A big reason is because Wazowski and Billy Crystal remain one of the best toon-voice actor combinations in animation. A lime green ball with spindly appendages, he's little more than one big eyeball. But it's Wazowski's mouth that's his dominant feature. He's ceaselessly chipper, with a stand-up's penchant for sarcasm.
He arrives on campus an eager, retainer-mouthed bookworm with his heart set on becoming a star pupil in Monster University's prestigious and competitive Scare Program, and moving on to his dream career at Monsters, Inc. (Monsters fuel their world by scaring human children through the nighttime portal of closet doors.) The professional scarers are like rock stars in Monstropolis, and Wazowski, blind to his diminutive size and total lack of fright-inducing menace, dreams of making the big leagues.
For Sully (John Goodman), such a future is presumed. He's "a Sullivan," a legacy, the son of a famous scarer. Blessed with a powerful roar, he boasts all the natural talent Wazowski lacks. One a jock of privilege, the other a wide-eyed aspirant: Neither can stand the other.
But both find themselves kicked out of the Scare Program by the cruel Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a kind of winged centipede. Shut to the doors of the cool kids frat, Roar Omega Roar (captained well by Nathan Fillion's chest-pumping Johnny Worthington), Wazowski and Sully have no recourse but to join the motley gang of misfits at Oozma Kappa ("We're OK!" they shout). Their only way back in is to win the Scare Games, a Harry Potter-like tradition of competing fraternities.
If "Monsters, Inc." was workplace whimsy, "Monsters University" is campus comedy. Characters — widely varied in both skill sets and biology — are finding their path, often a happy deviation from their expected one. Director Dan Scanlon, a veteran Pixar storyboard artist, populates this collegiate life with rich detail and sly but not forced references.
Ultimately, the film (which is preceded by a short, "The Blue Umbrella") makes a surprisingly sharp lesson on the hard truths of limited talent (giftedness remains an intriguing Pixar theme seen previously in "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille"), but also of the great value in plucky determination. Pixar's "Monsters University" might not be as gifted as some of its other movies, but sometimes it's alright to be OK.
"Monsters University," a Walt Disney release, is rated G. Running time: 103 minutes. Three stars out of four.