Oh, how I remember college. Several years out, I feel like I am putting on my wistful glasses to think about times on the quad and how much simpler life was back in the “good ol’ days.” It may be naïve to ponder this, but it feels like Pixar is also waxing nostalgic in their newest release Monsters University.When Monsters Inc. came out, there were not any of these new-fangled 3D glasses (which are barely used in this release) nor had the double-edged reputation that every year meant a new Pixar masterpiece been set in stone. Now, every studio is in the computer generated animation game and they all cast celebrity voices, not unlike Billy Crystal and John Goodman in the aforementioned Monsters classic. Also, fan and cynic alike have their knives out for this generation’s dream factory. Thus, it is not surprising that there were some raised eyebrows when Disney and Pixar announced the prequel Monsters University, which opens today.Luckily, I am here to say that all is well and like a trip back to your favorite campus hangout, this is a trek down memory lane worth savoring. Especially with all the young ones around, enjoying this world for the first time.Monsters University goes back to the very beginning for Mike Wazowski (Crystal) and James P. “Sully” Sullivan (Goodman). Back to even before they were friends. Mikey, having fantasized about being a scarer ever since a life-altering field trip to Monsters Inc., has just achieved the first step of his dream: become a student at Monsters University. Step Two? Graduate and become the greatest scarer the world has ever seen.Unfortunately, for all his academic passion for the subject, his short stature and Miracle Max voice makes him about as frightening as a hug from a unicorn. Conversely, Sully hails from a long line of famous scarers and seems poised to drift through the Scaring Program due to his raw talent. An instant rivalry forms when Roar Omega Roar’s leader Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion) inducts Sully into their fraternity for an accomplishment Mike achieved. Their rivalry grows so monstrous that it causes Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) of the Scaring School to throw them out of her program.Only after scholarly humiliation and being alienated from their supposed friends do Mike and Sully form a lifelong bond. With the help of the loser frat, Oozma Kappa—which includes lovable oddballs voiced by Joel Murray, Charlie Day, Sean Hayes and David Foley—the duo sets out to prove Hardscrabble wrong about their worth. Together they will enter the Scare Games, an informal campus competition, to frighten, sneak and disgust their way back into the Scaring School and university legend.Monsters University is a trip back in time for Pixar and coincidentally their audience. Despite the Toy Story Trilogy being widely regarded as one of the best three-film sets ever compiled, Cars 2 left all involved a bit disappointed. There was newspaper hand ringing as to whether Pixar had lost their edge. Fortunately, like a house floating from a few thousand balloons, that is little more than angst-ridden hot air.Unlike most prequels, Monsters University works on its own terms to deliver an experience at least in the same league and ballpark of its predecessor. From the beginning, the miracle of animation can hide how NOT fresh-faced Crystal and Goodman have become. Just as two men in their 50s could believably sound like a couple of blue collar wiseguys busting their hellholes for the company, in their 60s they can pass for a couple of collegiate archetypes ready to turn into some real party animals.
Indeed, Monsters University may as well be in the same category as all other great college-set films like Animal House and Old School (i.e. Animal House: 15 Years Later). Consider that the rivalry between the Oozma Kappas and Roar Omega Roars is not all that different than the Delta Tau Chis and Omega Theta Pis. Blessedly, no four-legged monsters have heart attacks (and unfortunately there is no Otis Day and the Knights). However, mean tricks are exchanged, including the Oozmas getting glitter, pastel paint and stuffed animal bombed for that school paper picture no “scary” monster fraternity wants to receive. The only thing that would have made this ending better is if Sully dressed like a pirate and swung off into the sunset with Dean Hardscrabble. She may be a cold-winged corpse, but she is voiced by Helen Mirren, dammit and that Dame is always game!The ending does boil down to a final competition between the two fraternities about who is the better scarer. And then, strangely, it keeps going into a genuinely surprising twist for a family film, as well as achieving some much-needed warmth after all the yucks. It even squeezes in a pro-working class message in an era of sky-rocketing tuition rates!Monsters University is not quite as good as its predecessor, but it more than lives up to its name and Pixar pedigree. The animation is more fluid than ever and Pixar really embraces the concept of creating unique “scares” for each individual monster, an aspect only hinted at and glossed over in the original. When Mike and Sully finally put their heads together for one final tag-team scare, it is a wonder of animated atmosphere and artist’s creativity to behold.Plus, The Blue Umbrella, the animated short that opens up the newest Pixar entry, is a real treat on its own. While breathing cutesy life into bland inanimate objects is probably the oldest animator trick in the book, the use of urban sprawl and griminess for that basis is enough to make any city dweller smile.Monsters University is not Pixar’s finest work, but it is still a truly welcome addition to their alumni. One that will have children smiling and parents reminiscing while Crystal and Goodman bounce off each other like a couple of pros. Obviously it is worth the persistent donations.Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars