These creatures of the night emerge to frighten and feed off their victims: young children who tell their skeptical parents that ghosts and goblins lurk in their closets. The kids are right. The monsters are not a figment of infant fears; they are a race of ogres from an alternative world whose only energy source is a high volume of audible nightmares. As human blood is to vampires, a child’s trauma is to these monsters. Whether they’re working-class heroes or vile predators depends on which side of the door you’re on. Toddlers believe they’ll never survive the monsters’ approach; monsters are taught that “human children are extremely toxic.” Either way, everything in nature feeds on something else. It’s the circle of fright.
This creepy symbiosis — Who’s the parasite? Who’s the host? — was first proposed in 2001 in Pete Docter’s Monsters, Inc., which was just the fourth feature produced by the CGI swamis at Pixar, and the first not directed by the genial company guru, John Lasseter. It could be called a horror movie disguised as a buddy comedy, because it focuses on the big hairy scare-bear Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and his one-eyed little trainer Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal). But Monsters, Inc. is also a parable about adoptive parenting. Three-year-old Boo (gurgled by Mary Gibbs), whose bedroom Sulley invades one night, fearlessly accompanies him through the closet’s back wall and into Monsterland, requiring the protection of her natural adversaries. Boo’s lesson for Sulley and Mike: Human children are not so toxic. In fact, they’re extremely adorable.
Pixar, the world’s pre-eminent dream factory, is also a business. And the business of movies these days is to extend the brand; just ask Marvel studios, which like Pixar was bought by Disney for billions a few years ago. After three sequels (Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 and Cars 2), the Emeryville, Calif., workshop has birthed its first prequel, Monsters University. Twelve years and nine features after Monsters, Inc., you get the usual, unparalleled Pixar spin and polish, and a college full of winning eccentrics, without the seismic startle and emotional depth of the original.
Devising a new story that leads up to the old one posed a dilemma to the movie’s makers. Of the three main characters from Monsters, Inc., one would be missing: Boo. So director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers, Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson, transferred Boo’s steep learning curve to another outsider, the oddball eyeball Mike.
A precocious misfit from his earliest days at Frighten Elementary School, Mike dreams of scaring children as another boy would strive for major-league stardom. To augment his natural brain, drive and guts, he practices and crams to develop the world’s most frightening noise: the scream de la scream. By the time he matriculates at Monsters U., the Harvard of howling, Mike is ready to be a BMOC (Big Monster on Campus). He lacks just one little, utterly crucial talent: shock appeal. His scream sounds like a mewl; it would be a lullaby to kids who need the sleep scared out of them. “If you’re not scary,” Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) warns him, “what kind of a monster are you?”
Sulley is the hulking, goof-off jock, overconfident in his scare tactics and far too reliant on his rep as the son of a distinguished alumnus. (Think a shaggier George W. Bush at Yale.) Sulley lazily assumes that might makes fright, but he lacks finesse; Mike has the skills but not the size. It’s no spoiler to say that these polar opposites make a perfect team.
In a cunning variation on the teen-school milieu of the Harry Potter films, Monsters University envisions a brighter, weirder Hogwarts, with giant hogs and real warts. Consigned to the loser fraternity of Oozma Kappa (OK), Mike and Sulley find a garage band of brothers: the feuding Siamese twins Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley); the A-shaped Art (Charlie Day), who could be a nephew of the Muppets’ Animal; the walrus-like Don Carlton (Joel Murray), a middle-age failure who has returned to school for a second chance; and the friendly, five-eyed blob Squishy (Peter Sohn), whose cheerful mom (Julia Sweeney) plays OK’s house mother — and why not? It’s her house that these rejects have bunked in.
Somebody at Pixar might also have read The Hunger Games. A long section of Monsters University (and, granted, plenty other comedies set in college) is spent on a series of physical trials for the members of OK and its rival fraternity, Roar Omega Roar (ROR). They must run an obstacle course, grab a flag in the library without waking the 50-ft.-tall snail lady at the check-out desk and play a nasty game of hide-and-seek — make that Jekyll-Hyde-and-seek. The final exam, the Scare Simulator, tests Mike’s powers of Megadeth volume and Sulley’s quantity of affection for his new friend.
Populating a design palette that’s both midnight-spooky and cartoon-cheerful is a teeming supporting cast of teachers and students. In the ROR frat of overlords, most of the brothers are familiar mythological beasts — bulls and the like — while the rest of the undergraduates might come from vastly separate galaxies, or from Bob Clampett’s seminally surrealist 1938 animated short Porky in Wackyland. For example, there’s a sorority pledged only by three-eyed girls, any one of whom would make a nice match for Mike. They’d have four eyes between them.
No serious romance will intrude on the brotherhood. Like virtually every Pixar feature except last year’s gynocentric Brave, Monsters University is guy-o-centric. In line with the Toy Story trilogy, the Cars movies, A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille and WALL•E, this is a workplace story — a strange, fraught, magical place very much like Pixar’s Bay Area headquarters, where vastly different individuals pool their skills to form an unbeatable team.
That team now seems to be in its post-masterpiece era; it’s been a long while since the astonishing one-two-three punch of WALL•E, Up and Toy Story 3. But this minor film with major charms still deserves to have kids drag their parents to the multiplex for another peek at the monsters in the closet. With Pixar, familiarity breeds content.