Pixar Animation Studios built its brand on two pillars: the technological gee-whiz factor of its animation and the depth of its characters.
In "Monsters University," Pixar breezily refreshes two of its most enjoyable characters: blue-furred monster James P. Sullivan (aka Sulley) and the mostly-eyeball Mike Wazowski. But it can't duplicate the wow moments that made the 2001 movie "Monsters, Inc." such a breathtaking experience.
"Monsters University" takes us to the moment Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) met in college. The two take an instant dislike to each other. Mike dreams of being a scarer, producing energy from human children's screams, and he studies hard to compensate for his lack of innate scariness. Sulley is a born scarer, but skates through classes and life on his natural ability and amiable personality.
When Mike and Sulley get tossed out of the scaring program, Sulley also gets kicked out of the most popular fraternity, Roar Omega Roar. Sulley lands in Mike's nerdy frat, Oozma Kappa, populated with other misfits of the university. But Mike sees a chance for redemption in the annual Scare Games, a competition among the Greek houses to show who's the scariest of them all. Mike even makes a bet with the imperious scorpion-legged Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren): If Oozma Kappa wins, Mike and Sulley get back in the scaring program. If they don't, Mike will be expelled.
Director Dan Scanlon and his writing partners, Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson, concoct a "Revenge of the Nerds"-style story about plucky underdogs bucking the system while also learning life lessons and forming lifelong friendships. Most of the fun comes in the margins as the Pixar wizards create the little details and side jokes that inform the monster world, such as showing how Mike and the chameleonic Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi) went from friendly roommates to antagonists (and, in "Monsters, Inc.," enemies).
What's lacking from "Monsters University" is an ending that matches the breakneck pacing or creative brilliance of "Monsters, Inc.," with its race through many doors between the monster and human worlds.
Maybe Pixar's bosses should take a page from their short filmmakers, such as Saschka Unseld, director of the delightful short "The Blue Umbrella" that accompanies the feature. The wordless five-minute film, about an umbrella who finds love, is Pixar's first stab at photorealistic animation, but adds a magical touch to it. "Monsters University" gets a passing grade, but Unseld's work puts him at the head of the class.
Mike and Sulley meet in college in this "Monsters, Inc." prequel that's still fun, though not as inventive as the original.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, June 21.
Rating • G.
Running time • 110 minutes, plus a short, "The Blue Umbrella."