Opens Fri., June 21 at Ark Lodge and other theaters. Rated G. 103 minutes.
Every once in a while it’s nice to be able to declare a sequel superior to the original—even if the movie in question is technically a prequel. So let’s tip the mortarboard in the direction of this smoothly tailored Pixar offering. I realize the 2001 Monsters, Inc. is on repeat play in many family households, and it’s a funny movie. But it’s the weakest of the early Pixar classics, jokier and more mechanical than the likes of Toy Story and Finding Nemo.
The prequel covers the college years of Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), who live in the monster world and would very much like to become “scarers,” the creatures whose job it is to sneak out of children’s closets and frighten the little darlings into screaming in the night. (You will recall that these screams are responsible for generating the world’s energy.) Mike, the little green beach-ball Cyclops, is woefully unscary, but he’s dedicated to learning the craft. Sully, the big blue Sasquatch, comes from a celebrated family of scarers, and is more interested in being the BMOC than in studying in class. The two don’t like each other. But they’re going to have to work something out, because mean Dean Hardscrabble—Helen Mirren, whose British-schoolmarm presence only enhances the movie’s whiff of Harry Potter—has it in for them.
This makes for a typically endearing Pixar story arc, which—though it resolves in ways that are hardly astonishing—does offer a few surprises. Long past college age, Crystal and Goodman do their familiar vocal mannerisms; funnier still is the galaxy of supporting monsters, especially the hopelessly nerdy crew at Monster U’s least desirable fraternity. The design stuff isn’t all that outrageous (this is a G-rated film, so there are no truly scary monsters), but the gags and character quirks are delectable, especially among MU’s have-nots. Director Dan Scanlon, a Pixar vet helming his first big animated film, keeps it going at top speed. And yeah, it’s still more mechanical than Pixar’s work in heart-melting Toy Story mode, but the studio at its best is about details, and these details are right on.
Speaking of details: In the early days of computer animation, certain bugaboos always meant photorealism would be impossible: depicting water, for instance, and hair. If Monsters U is any indication, we may be close to the impossible, because even those problem cases look mind-bogglingly real. Whether photorealism should be a goal for animated films is a subject that can wait another semester.