How do you make a movie for kids about monsters whose job it is to scare children without doling out nightmares along with the price of a ticket? That’s the fine line Pixar treads with their new film, “Monster’s University,” a very kid friendly mix of “Bad News Bears,” (without the drunk coach), “Mean Girls” (without the unadulterated nastiness) and “Carrie” (without the murderous rage).
Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Helen Mirren, instead, it features strong messages and more complex characters than usual for a kid’s flick.
In this prequel to “Monsters Inc.” Mike Wazowski is a one-eyed–actually he’s mostly eye–green monster whose dream is to scare unsuspecting kids and capture their screams. Enrolling in the Harvard of Horror, Monster’s University, he’s a good student, devouring books on the five essential components of a scary roar and the like, but there’s a problem. He’s not as scary as his classmates, particularly Sullivan (Goodman), a blue beast with a family background in haunting kid’s dreams. In fact, he’s not scary at all. But determined to prove everyone wrong, Mike and the misfits of Oozma Kappa compete in the Scare Games, a spooky showdown to determine which frat house is the most gruesome.
There’s nothing particularly scary about “Monster’s University.” Very young viewers might be disturbed by the dramatic entrance of Mrs. Hardscrabble (Mirren), a winged dragon lady who scurries around on insect legs, but by and large the key word here is fun not fright.
The animation is top notch with creature designs that bring to mind plush toys. This campus full of multi-headed girls and tentacled boys, with blue, green and red skin that feels like Dr. Seuss gone wild. It’s fanciful eye candy that kids should love.
With the visuals comes messaging about perseverance, bullying and the virtues of honesty all set in an utterly unique world of Pixar’s creation. The story may be a prequel and have call-backs to other films but director Dan Scanlon pushes the story into unexpected territory. A predictable ending is avoided, and even though it forwards the iffy notion–MILD SPOILER!!!–that life experience is more valuable than school, it brings the movie to a satisfying conclusion.
“Monster’s University” once again exerts Pixar’s dominance in animation by giving audiences great characters and taking equal care with the visuals and the story.