It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
If you were worried that animation giant Pixar was dipping into the same old wells too often ("Toy Story 3," "Cars 2," et al), the announcement of a prequel to their 2001 hit "Monsters, Inc." might have given you pause. Luckily, the result is more than reassuring. "Monsters University", which pictures Billy Crystal's one-eyed goblin Mike and John Goodman's fuzzy blue scare-master Sully as students attending Scare U, is true to the spirit of the original film, "Monsters Inc.", and matches its tone. But it never seems content to turn over old ground.
The tale begins with a brief prologue establishing Mike as a young monster. He's not what you'd call a natural. He's a model student, one of those grinds who gets good grades but lacks that spark that marks the special talents. Sully, the big blue party animal Mike meets at college, is the opposite. He's the son of a family acclaimed for its multi-generational scaring ability, coasting through life on his name. But Sully's one of those guys for whom success only seems to come easily. When Mike and Sully try to enter the school's "Scare Program" by winning the annual campus scaring competition — to avoid getting roped into a "boring" career track, such as manufacturing scream canisters — their strengths and weaknesses become clear. Mike wants to be an all-time champion scarer the way a tiny, chubby kid wants to be in the NBA; there's hope for him, but not in the way that he thinks. Sully is Mike's opposite. He's lazy and a smart-aleck. He doesn't have as much imagination as some of his classmates assume, and he's so terrified of failure that he's turned underachieving into a kind of self-protective performance art. (The first time Mike meets him, Sully shambles into a class that's already in progress, sans pencil or paper.)
You'll notice that I've already said quite a bit about the two main characters, and I haven't even gotten to a summary of the plot yet. That's because Sully and Mike are such richly-drawn individuals, so fully imagined in terms of psychology, body language and vocal performance, that they feel more "real" than the live-action heroes in almost any current summer blockbuster you can name. This is a specific Pixar talent, and for all the goodwill that the company has generated over the years, they still don't get enough credit for it. Sully's thinner in this film than he was in the first one, and he has the jockish, meathead energy of the young Nick Nolte. Look at how he slouches semi-sideways in classroom desk chairs, or tilts his strong jaw while half-listening, like a man (er, monster) who was told as a child that he had a nice face and never forgot it. Look at Mike's schlumpy posture, his permanent-wedgie walk, and how he shrugs as if warding off blows that it hasn't occurred to anyone to deliver yet. These touches and others are marvelous, and they go a long way toward making the central relationship equal to, yet different from, Mike and Sully's friendship in "Monsters Inc."
The supporting players are just as vivid. Like characters in a classic Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch comedy, they enter the film as caricatures and emerge as fully-formed individuals, the sorts of people (monsters!) that you'd remember fondly if you knew them in life. The members of Oozma Kappa, the uncoolest fraternity on campus — the only one that will take Mike and Sully — are a ragtag bunch, the classic underdogs of sports movie cliche, but they're physically bizarre, a gaggle of bouncy doodles. There's a seemingly permanent student with an upside-down bat wing for a mustache, a portly salesman who's older than some of the teachers. There's a spazzy goofball who's basically a pair of legs plus a face (he sure can breakdance, though). There's a two-headed fellow whose heads argue with one another (one head wants to be a dance major, the other doesn't). There's an entitled jock fraternity that tries to recruit Sully, with a self-regarding leader whose puffed-up chest and melon head dwarf his stick legs, and a super-competitive sorority full of giggly monsters who dress in pink and seem chirpy and harmless until you see their eyes light up with a hellish intensity that would frighten Medusa herself.