It's been 12 years since Pixar introduced us to the loveable one-eyed blob Mike Wazowski and his gigantic furry scare partner in Monsters, Inc., one James P. "Sulley" Sullivan. But instead of a "where are they now?" sequel, Monsters University travels back in time to tell the tale of how these two unlikely friends ended up in the scare business to begin with.
For Mike, being a scarer—a superstar monster who creeps into human children's bedrooms to startle screams out of them as a way of powering Monstropolis—is the only thing he's ever wanted to do. For Sulley, there's a family legacy to live up to since his dad was one of the most famous scarers ever.
And so they arrive as freshmen at Monsters University, each intent upon becoming scare majors. But roaring roadblocks await.
Mike is a natural born student. He works hard. He studies hard. There's just one problem: "What you lack is something that cannot be taught," the stern and centipedial head of the scare program, Dean Hardscrabble, tells him. "You're not scary." And just like that, Mike's dreams of being a scarer get gobbled up.
Sulley's got the opposite problem. He is a natural born scarer who wrongly assumes his genetic gifts mean he never needs to study. Soon he's in search of a new major too.
Dejected and disappointed, Mike and Sulley find themselves on the outside looking in. And then … a chance at redemption: the Scare Games.
Each winter, the Scare Games pit rival Monsters University fraternities and sororities against one another in a battle royal of frightfully fun rivalry. Each team seeks to top the others in a series of competitive challenges involving the skills they'll need for careers as scarers after graduation.
All Mike and Sulley need to participate is a fraternity. And they find one: Oozma Kappa, all of whose nerdy members seem even less likely to generate fear than Mike would on his least terrifying day. Don Carlton is a rotund, polite middle-aged bachelor who's gone back to get his degree after 30 years in sales. Terry and Terri are a two-headed monster with vastly different interests, one of whom is majoring in dance (much to the other's chagrin). Furry Art is dabbling in philosophy, while the aptly named, multi-eyed Scott "Squishy" Squibbles is about as frightening as a dirty dish sponge.
And then there's the fact that their "frat house" (where Mike and Sulley share a room) is also Squishy's mom's house. She occasionally hangs out with the gang too … and tells them when it's time for bed.
The right stuff for a Scare Games trophy? Hardly. Still, Mike exacts a promise from Dean Hardscrabble that if they can somehow win, he and Mike will be reinstated as scare majors. If they lose, however, everyone in Oozma Kappa must leave Monsters University, Dean Hardscrabble intones ominously.
Forget scaring. Monsters University majors in two reassuring and comforting themes: recognizing and overcoming your natural weaknesses, and understanding why we need friends to accomplish that task.
Mike Wazowski is a model of self-discipline, determination and focus. He's a whiz at all things academic, determined to overcome everyone's belief that he's not scary enough. He's similarly adept at whipping his unlikely Oozma Kappa brothers into a team that actually has a fighting shot at winning the Scare Games. But it's not until he comes face-to-face with a situation that reveals just how not scary he really is that he has to reckon with the reality that he may not have what it takes to be a scarer.
In that moment, Sulley steps in to encourage his friend not to give up and to remind him what an inspiration he's been to so many other monsters—not the least of which is himself. Sulley's easy reliance on his natural gifts has made him lazy and arrogant, and Mike helps him see that talent alone isn't enough. It must be fused to discipline if it's going to be fully realized. On the flip side, Sulley eventually helps Mike see that sometimes desire alone may not be enough to overcome inherent weaknesses. In the end, Mike and Sulley realize they're a better, stronger team together than either of them could ever be individually. It's a significant moment when Sulley warmly gives Mike full credit for being the brains behind his brawn.
[Spoiler Warning] There's one more big positive in Monsters University: You could call it Cheating 101. Sulley makes a massive blunder by rigging one of the Scare Games contests in Mike's favor, and the fallout is both rapid and multi-tentacled: Mike and the rest of team feel let down and dejected, having thought that they won fair and square. And when Sulley rightly responds to his own feelings of guilt by confessing to Hardscrabble, the dean renders the only appropriate consequence: explusion from school.
Likewise, Mike tries recklessly to prove how scary he is by sneaking through a university door into a cabin of sleeping young campers. When he realizes that the campers think he's cute and cuddly instead of fierce and frightening, he finds himself in a jam from which Sulley eventually rescues him. But Mike is also expelled for breaking school rules. And so he and Sulley have to start from the bottom once again, going to work at Monsters, Inc. as janitors, and climbing their way up through the ranks of the company to eventually become a scare team together.
This part you probably already know: Monstropolis exists in a parallel universe to ours. The city is powered by the screams of children, which the scarers at Monsters, Inc. bottle up each workday while "magically" moving back and forth between the two dimensions. So here's what's added in this prequel: Some monsters have a particularly diabolical look, especially a group of sorority sisters with three eyes each that glow eerily red. Initiation into the fraternity involves answering the question, "Do you pledge your souls to the Oozma Kappa brotherhood?" Art tells the guys that he's a "New Age philosophy major."
Sulley's arm falls into Mike's face from the top bunk while both are sleeping. Dreaming, Mike begins kissing his friend's hand, saying, "I know you're a princess, and I'm just a stable boy." When both startle awake, Sulley indignantly asks, "Were you kissing my hand?" Elsewhere, Don and Ms. Squibbles eventually get engaged and share a brief embrace and kiss. Don jokes with Squishy about "your brother marrying your mother."
Many scenes involve slapstick, cartoony violence that never results in any real harm. Mike, for example, drives a floor-buffing machine while reading a textbook … and runs over several students. A confrontation with a massive librarian results in madcap mayhem and one of the Scare Games teams being ejected through a skylight. Another challenge involves traversing an obstacle course filled with stinging glow urchins that produce massive, balloon-sized welts on those who touch them. (Lots of monsters end up with lots of swelling.)
A bit more realistic, unfortunately, is Mike and Sulley's initiation to Oozma Kappa, which involves being spanked with wooden paddles. Mike throws a book in a fit of anger. Verbal threats include "You're dead meat" and "We're gonna rip you to pieces."
We, of course, once again see monsters scaring children. A confrontation between Sulley, Mike and a group of investigating human police in a cabin plays on such horror movie motifs as scraping claws leaving score marks in wood, walking wind-up dolls, fast-moving images out of the corner of your eye, etc.
Crude or Profane Language
At worst, "snap," "dangit," "son of a gun," "oh my gosh" and "gosh darndest." "What the …?" never gets finished.
Drug and Alcohol Content
None … but only technically. A party shows Monsters University students drinking from red cups. At an even wilder frat party later (loud music and dancing are involved), Sulley is seen throwing what seem to be Velcro covered Ping-Pong balls at a reveler who's fallen "asleep."
Other Negative Elements
Other fraternities and sororities pretend to accept the Oozma Kappa guys at a party, but it's all a mean, elaborate setup to dump paint, glitter, confetti and flowers on them, mock them and spread photos of the embarrassing event all over campus.
Trying to inspire his fellow Oozma Kappas, Mike leads a break-in at Monsters, Inc. that involves cutting through the fence and sneaking into the facility to watch scarers in action. Though they're pursued, they're not caught, and there's never any consequence for their trespassing. (As they're being chased, someone says, "I can't go back to jail.") And it's worth mentioning that Ms. Squibbles is in on it; she waits for them with her minivan. Emboldened by the experience—and getting away with it—one guy jokes, "Let's break in somewhere else."
Later, that's exactly what happens as Mike breaks into the door lab to prove once and for all that he's scary. Sulley follows him in, while Dean Hardscrabble powers down the door behind them to ostensibly (and mercilessly) trap them in the human world. Sulley and (somewhat inadvertently) Mike also steal the pig mascot of rival school Fear Tech.
A professor says, "Drool is a tool, kids, use it." Don's tentacles turn embarrassingly sticky when he's nervous. Discarded food from the trash in the MU cafeteria is dumped back into serving trays to be reused. The beginning of the Scare Games takes place in the sewer.
All Pixar films aspire to be tasty treats in one way or another … to see and to talk about. And I'll end this review with the heartwarming lessons Monsters University teaches.
But first there's a corner of this particular treat that has a bit of monster mold on it: Monster-mash party re-creations show collegians drinking from red cups and, in one instance, a student who's unconscious as others pick on him. It's meant as a winking reference to distant—and raunchy—cinematic cousins such as Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, and parents are supposed to laugh knowingly even as little ones supposedly miss the joke. For viewers as young as Boo was a dozen years ago, that might the case. But in a world where middle schoolers are simultaneously clinging to little-kid cartoons and encountering alcohol at ever-younger ages, reinforcing the idea that college is all about red cup partying is a message that feels jarringly out of place here.
Hints at hazing and nods to horror movies aren't so cool either. And though it's probably pretty obvious, I should mention that the entire premise of the Monsters' world rests upon the necessity of scaring children to the point of screaming. Accordingly, a few scenes include images of monsters that could be frightening to some young moviegoers.
But if there's one constant that runs through every Pixar release, it's the theme of friendship. Without friends—friends who tell us the hard truth, friends who graciously help us when we make really bad decisions—we simply will not get to where we need to go.
Monsters University is ultimately, then, more a movie about friendship than scaring (or partying). Mike and Sulley each have some important growing up to do. And even though they're both initially convinced that they have what it takes on their own to pursue their dreams of being scarers, in the end they need each other's talents and encouragement to reach the stars. Along the way, they learn the incredibly valuable lesson that cheating and breaking rules does not let you skip ahead a few squares, while we're treated to a heartwarming (if formulaic by now) story about what learning such important lessons together looks like.