While waiting in line to get our movie tickets, we were reminded by a monitor showing rotating trivia questions and preview clips that Monsters University is the only Pixar prequel so far. It sounds like an unremarkable fact, but there’s probably a good reason for it: prequels are hard. They have to reintroduce us to characters and/or worlds we already know, and tell a story that honors what we know about them and tells us something we didn’t know without invalidating what will happen in their future. It’s probably easier to think of prequels that turned out mediocre at best, such as Prometheus, Caprica, and of course Episodes 1-3 of Star Wars. The more successful ones tend to take more oblique approaches, like weaving flashbacks in with what’s happening “now” (Godfather 2), or just treating the whole thing as a reboot with an unwritten future (the new Star Trek films, the Bale Batman, the Craig Bond). So it’s actually a bolder move than it seems to take a beloved Pixar film like Monsters Inc. and do a prequel set entirely in that film’s past.
Part of the reason it works—and it does, like crazy, in case you were wondering—is that the first film was a little unusual in Pixar’s canon in not really being centered around character development. Mike and Sully take risks they’re not accustomed to, but largely they’re catalysts for the growth of the world they live in. Thanks to their adorable stowaway and the chain of events in which she forms the first link, the company they work for discovers that laughter is a better source of energy than terror, and transforms their business into one based on benefiting others rather than causing them to suffer. The characters learn secrets about the world in which they live rather than learning much about themselves. Which is perfectly fine, not least because it means there’s plenty of room for the prequel to be about the characters rather than the world.
Even so, while Sully has a lot of growing to do, Mike ends the movie not too far off from where he starts. From his early days as a cute one-eyed kid monster with a retainer, he looks at every situation from the most optimistic angle possible, and never once considers the possibility that he can’t do anything he sets his mind to. This is a little incongruous with the Mike we know from the first film, “put that kid back or so help me!” Mike who seems worried about everything. Perhaps after his struggles to succeed in this film, studying every minute of the day to be an A+ Scaring Student, and going toe-to-toe with unfriendly faculty, derisive fratboys, and deadly toxic humans, he’s gotten a little gunshy of anything that might knock him back down the ladder again.
It probably won’t spoil much to disclose that he and Sully don’t start out as best friends; they have to earn each other’s friendship. Where Mike is a know-it-all, up to his eyeball in Scare Theory, Sully is a cocky natural, born into a scaring family and blessed with an intimidating presence and a room-silencing roar. The two butt horns almost immediately, and spend the majority of the film learning their limits, and that not only are knowledge and talent insufficient in isolation, even the two in tandem are no match for the potential of teamwork and the right tactics at the right time.
Okay, fine, but is it any fun? Absolutely. Pixar being Pixar, the jokes almost all feel fresh enough to sidestep the clichés of campus comedy. Granted, we do have an obnoxious jockish frat (led by Nathan Fillion doing exactly what he does as well as he always does it) and a fearsome martinet dean (yes, that is Helen Mirren’s voice) as the main antagonists, and our heroes do end up members of a nerdy underdog frat (“Oozma Kappa,” or OK) seeking revenge and acceptance through unfriendly competition. But somehow it all stays just this side of believable, which is no mean feat considering that most of the characters we’re believing in are crayon-colored and have the wrong number of eyes.
The most memorable monsters in the supporting cast are probably the ones in Oozma Kappa, and include a sucker-armed salesman trying to make a midlife career change, a two-headed amateur illusionist (one head is also a dancer, the other definitely isn’t), a fuzzy purple philosophy student shaped like an upside-down U and harboring a checkered past (at one panicked moment he blurts “I can’t go back to prison!”), and a blobby arrested-development case whose main strengths are appearing next to you unexpectedly and having a mom who lets OK use her home as their frat house. Then again, it’s hard to forget the tentacled librarian with hidden depths (or rather heights), the sorority of identical demons, or the slug you’ve probably seen in the trailers who needs just a little extra time to get to class.
My only real regret about the prequel is that while it does an adequate and plausible job of getting Randall from endearing bespectacled social outcast to the singleminded scoundrel we know from Monsters Inc., we don’t spend a lot of time with him. It would have been nice to get more of the innocent Randall before the inevitable turn to the dark side, but it’s not his story, after all. This is the story of how Mike and Sully get to be the best Scare Team on the record books, even if they have to start below the very bottom to get to the top. And even with the odds stacked against it, it’s a great story. Eight tentacles up.
(P.S. Horror fans should bring a bingo card of scary movie clichés and get ready to cover spaces toward the end of the film. And yes, you should stay until after the credits.)