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Of all the fictional worlds that Pixar has created, the one of Monsters Inc. may be the most vibrant and rife with potential for other stories. No, we didn't really need to see how Mike and Sully became friends in college, or how Mike learned to overcome his naturally un-scary appearances, but in Monsters University a slim plot and excuse to sell more toys is also a welcome return trip to a world that we missed more than we might have thought.
The colorful doors and busy factory floor of Monsters Inc. are barely present in this prequel, which meets the scarers as they begin their training at the esteemed Monsters University. Mike (Billy Crystal), who we meet briefly as an energetic child and is the obvious protagonist here, has worked tirelessly to enroll in the scaring program, while Sulley (John Goodman) is the entitled son of a scaring legend who can coast on his giant frame to earn all the scares he needs. Mike and Sully are two obvious types familiar from most school movies-- the bossy go-getter and the laid-back slacker-- and both clearly have a lot to learn from each other. But instead of watching the rivalry melt into friendship through natural causes, the future best pals are thrown into the hoariest of all college movie cliches: the contest.
Like the cast of Revenge of the Nerds and even this summer's The Internship, Mike and Sulley must lead a ragtag team through a series of challenges to prove they're the best scarers on campus. It's a last-ditch effort to get back into the scaring program after the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) tosses them out. Mike still hates Sully for being cocky, and Sulley hates Mike for being a know it all, but they can only muster frustration for their desperately chosen teammates, the pitiful losers of the Oozma Kappa frat. There's the walrus-like middle-aged Don (Joel Murray), the twins Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley) sharing a body, the insecure mama's boy Squishy (Peter Sohn), and most notably fuzzy purple rainbow-shaped Art (Charlie Day), like Animal from the Muppets with nothing nearly as useful as drumming skills.
The contest plot may be the simplest Pixar has ever done, and there are none of the complex themes here that has marked some of the studio's best work-- Mike and Sulley learn to work together and overcome their own insecurities, the Oozma Kappa gang learns the value of teamwork, etc. Luckily this is also the studio's funniest movie in quite some time, crammed to the gills with wild supporting characters and one-off jokes, expanding the lush and energetic world of Monsters Inc. to an impressive degree. There's a stunning variety in the design of monsters, and supporting characters voiced by the likes of Nathan Fillion (as the classic bully jock) and Steve Buscemi (returning as the future villain Randy) make an immediate impression. Day's Art is an immediate breakout character, and even the minor fellow competitors in the Scare Games-- like a bunch of cheerleader-types whose eyes glow blood red-- add texture and some consistent surprises.
But in this busy, briskly paced and decidedly low-stakes story, there's almost no room for emotions around the central pair themselves. The Scare Games format keeps the story moving and makes for some great training montages, but when the film drops it near the end in favor of some really original scares, you realize how stifling that familiar plot has been. Mike and Sulley's friendship is inevitable, so when they finally join forces there's no emotional punch, and certainly nothing on the level of Sulley's tender relationship with Boo in Monsters Inc.. Director Dan Scanlon keeps the film moving and certainly has the Pixar humor nailed, but this is one of the studio's rare films in which the characters are far less engaging than the world they inhabit.