Not even attempting to scale the heights of Pixar past, "Monsters University" finds Disney's toon studio operating at a pleasantly middling level of artistic achievement. Tracing the friendship of scarer-in-chief Sulley and one-eyed sidekick Mike Wazowski back to its college-rivalry roots, this zippy, colorful, bright-minded prequel scarcely needed to exist, yet makes for perfectly agreeable entertainment now that it does. Given that 2001's "Monsters, Inc." remains one of the studio's top B.O. earners, Pixar's 14th animated feature can be counted on to eek out similarly robust biz among family audiences, who will respond warmly to the easy, ingratiating comic sensibility at play here.
While Pixar's recent output includes at least one underrated original ("Brave") and one undisputed triumph ("Toy Story 3"), the company's increasing reliance on sequels and spinoffs bears out the idea that even Hollywood's most reliable creative entities must resort to cannibalizing themselves sooner or later. Still, compromise should always look as classy as "Monsters University," which, as directed by longtime Pixar storyboard artist Dan Scanlon, is as visually accomplished as its top-of-the-line brethren. Even when the story mechanics feel more than a bit secondhand, the exquisite interplay of vibrant pastel hues and almost photorealist textures (smoothly but not crucially enhanced in 3D) makes the film a continual pleasure to behold.
A charming prologue draws us smoothly back into Monstropolis, a town that runs entirely on scream energy harnessed from terrified human children. Literally and figuratively green, Mike (voiced at a young age by Noah Johnston) is determined to be a scarer himself one day, even if he lacks the fur, claws, salivary glands and imposing physique that would mark him as a contender. Years later, his optimism undimmed, he arrives at the gates of Monsters U. (it's either that or Fear Tech) and enrolls in the School of Scaring, overseen by the intimidating, bat-winged Dean Hardscrabble (a supremely sinister Helen Mirren).
The other principal players from the first film are swiftly reintroduced in ways that cleverly but logically play against expectations: The slippery, chameleonlike Randy (Steve Buscemi) is Mike's seemingly benign roommate, while Mike's future best friend, the hulking, purple-spotted James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman), starts out as his sworn enemy. A big monster on campus, Sulley is such an innately gifted frightener that he sees no need to apply himself, to the chagrin of Mike, who spends hours studying textbooks and terror-technique flashcards.
When Mike and Sulley's mutual antipathy escalates to the point of getting them both kicked out of the program, they're left with no choice but to join Oozma Kappa, the lamest fraternity on campus, and compete in the school's annual Scare Games in a go-for-broke bid to regain their academic standing. Along the way, naturally, the characters must befriend a zany collection of MU outcasts (none of whom, except a tentacled older student voiced by Joel Murray, leaves much of an impression) and learn valuable lessons about the importance of friendship and teamwork. These obligatory beats are offset by the film's brisk, ever-escalating level of narrative incident, enlivened by the Games' entertaining scare challenges as well as the witty sight gags that unfold with delightful regularity in the margins of the frame.
Refreshing but not reinventing the conventions of the campus comedy, "Monsters University" emerges as a curiously amusing example of the form in which no one, despite a uniquely rambunctious student body, throws a kegger or so much as peeks into the girls' locker room. The content necessities of a G rating notwithstanding, a bit less cuteness and a few sharper teeth wouldn't have gone awry; the world of Monstropolis feels so inherently cuddly and endearing that the notion of any of these plush-toy grotesques really scaring anyone remains the single toughest notion to swallow. The mandate to be as accessible as possible is, ironically, what prevents full surrender to this modestly funny and captivating franchise.
Still, by dint of its tried-and-true Pixar smarts, the film offers a more thoughtful, resonant take on the usual triumph-of-the-underdog bromides. To some degree continuing a dialogue initiated by "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille," in which helmer Brad Bird tackled ideas of excellence vs. mediocrity, and the possibility of greatness popping up in unexpected places, Scanlon deals honestly and inventively with the hard reality that some talents can't be taught and some dreams remain unfulfilled. These are truths that "Monsters University," an amiable diversion inevitably overshadowed by the films that have come before it, must itself contend with.
Crystal's vocal turn serves the story's thematic intentions perfectly, amply conveying Mike's brains, resourcefulness and winner's spirit; although his fast-flying patter has been appreciably reined in here, it now registers, quite poignantly, as an expression of resilience in the face of so much abuse. Goodman makes a fine foil this time around, although Sulley's lazy personality emerges as much through slackerish body language as through dialogue. Hip additions to the cast include Nathan Fillion as the smug leader of MU's top fraternity and Aubrey Plaza as the sarcastic goth girl who calls the shots at the Scare Games.
While the difficulty of animating lifelike fur was the chief technical challenge of "Monsters, Inc.," Pixar's technical wizards have clearly mastered that and more in the 12 years since. Given that the ensemble includes more than 400 background characters (averaging a staggering 25-plus characters per shot), the level of visual differentiation and detail on display is nothing short of astounding.
The film will be preceded in theaters by "The Blue Umbrella," a lovely short whose blend of live-action and animation techniques yields a sweet, rain-washed symphony of random kindness and unexpected romance.