MONSTERS UNIVERSITY directed by Dan Scanlon, written by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Scanlon, with the voices of John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi and Helen Mirren. A Disney release. 95 minutes. Opens Friday (June 21). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNN
If Disney-Pixar is hell-bent on squeezing further adventures out of existing stories, Monsters University at least does it right. Dan Scanlon's prequel doesn't even try to replicate the emotional and narrative arcs of 2001's magnificent Monsters, Inc. - still the most satisfying (and heartbreaking) of any Pixar production as far as I'm concerned.
Instead, MU throws a conceptual curve ball, dropping John Goodman's hulking furball Sulley and Billy Crystal's one-eyed imp Mike Wazowski into another genre: the snobs-vs-slobs college comedy.
Back in the day, it turns out, Sulley and Mike were scaring school classmates who did not get along. Sulley was a slacker, coasting on natural talent and his family name, while Mike was a bookish overachiever. But when their rivalry gets them kicked out of the program, they must join misfit fraternity Oozma Kappa and defeat the slicker, more successful Greek clubs in the campus-wide Scare Games to convince crusty Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren!) to give them another chance.
Scanlon and his co-writers steer clear of most campus clichés. There's no food fight, for example, and the clashes with the swaggering jocks of rival frat ROR (led by Nathan Fillion) are kept to a handful of insults. Monsters U mostly delights in developing the relationship between Sulley and Mike, with their reluctant teamwork in the Scare Games leading to genuine bonding.
Goodman is effortlessly convincing as a younger, more impulsive Sulley, and Crystal - insufferable in live-action roles for years - is great as a Mike who hasn't yet learned to enjoy his job.
Here's another surprise: Randy Newman - who's been on animation autopilot for years - delivers a knockout score incorporating various collegiate fight song motifs and riffing on Elmer Bernstein's Animal House in just the right way.
And a climactic venture into the human world demonstrates exactly how far Pixar's digital artistry has come since the first film.