'Monsters U' not a scream, but plenty cute
“Monsters University” is one of those movies that has absolutely no reason to exist. But, once you've seen it, you're kind of glad it does.
This prequel to “Monsters Inc.,” one of Pixar's less-talked-about (if still quite good) movies, is the story of how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) met. It's cute, funny, exciting to look at, but not quite magical.
Three out of four ain't bad.
A quick refresher: In this universe, monsters generate power for Monstropolis, the city where they live, by the screams of children. Thus, all of those creatures under the bed and in the closet and things that go bump in the night actually exist. But monsters consider humans and their belongings toxic, so they keep their worlds separate. (That plays greatly into the plot of “Monsters Inc.”)
That's a really cool premise, one whose novelty can't be replicated a second time. “Monsters University” suffers a little from our knowing what becomes of Mike and Sully, but not overly so.
All his life, it turns out, Mike has wanted to be a scarer, or one of the monsters who generates screams. We meet him as a child on a field trip, where his class visits the Scarefloor, which contains portals to the human world. He's immediately hooked.
Fast-forward to Mike's first day at Monsters University, where he knows the curriculum inside and out. Other students might want to party and have a good time, but Mike is single-minded of purpose, with one goal: to study in the school's Scare Program. The only problem is that he's not scary.
Sulley is. He's a legacy, the son of a legendary scarer. He possesses a ferocious scream but not much else. He's content to coast on his family name and his natural skill, not self-aware enough to know that won't be enough.
So, both monsters have talent, and both are limited. If only there were some way they could work together ...
Mike and Sulley find themselves on the outs with the Scare Program, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) and the prestigious Roar Omega Roar fraternity (led by a funny Nathan Fillion.) Their only shot at redemption is the Scare Games, a competition between Greek organizations.
The predictability of mismatched characters working together to achieve a common goal is balanced somewhat by the realistic depiction of certain goals being out of reach, no matter how much you want to achieve them. You don't expect a movie like this to have an unhappy ending, and “Monsters University” doesn't. But it also doesn't have the pat resolution you might expect. For some people, things don't work out the way they had hoped. It doesn't mean something else won't, but the sting of that initial reality is realistically depicted.
The banter between Mike and Sulley, however, remains the best thing about these movies. Separately, they are incomplete. Together, they're a formidable team — a team that rises above the sum of its parts.
Not an earthshaking lesson, perhaps, but one worth knowing. “Monsters University” isn't a bad way to learn it.
Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.