By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — This one’s also a scream, but at a lower decibel level.
Monsters University is a prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc., an animated charmer that was also an artistic triumph, not only terrifically funny but also boasting surprising emotional depth.
The prequel doesn’t live up to that high standard, but it shares plenty with the original mon-stros-ity: it’s replete with colorful characters, unflagging inventiveness, and loads of laughs.
But getting the backstory after a twelve-year wait feels much more like a nostalgic rewind than an artistic enhancement.
We’re back once again in Monstropolis, a town that runs on the scream energy provided by terrified human children.
And we’re looking back in on eye-eye-sir Mike (voice of Billy Crystal) and blue fur ball Sulley (John Goodman) during their college days, when the rivals –- Mike a natural cheerleader, Sulley the lazy scarer-in-chief — become frightful friends as they pursue an education and prepare for a career in scaring the bejesus out of the kiddies.
Steve Buscemi, Frank Oz, and John Ratzenberger return to the large voice cast, plenty of other new minor-celebrity voices matriculate, and Helen Mirren gives voice to Monsters University’s Dean Hardscrabble, who runs the School for Scaring.
When Mike and Sulley are booted out of the program, they have to find a way back in. So they join a fraternity and compete in the Scare Games, with their re-enrollment (and their future as career scarers) at stake.
Debuting director Dan Scanlon, who co-wrote the zippy script with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, can’t find a way to affect his young audience emotionally to the same degree that the brilliant original did.
But the level of detail, with what seems like hundreds of characters and a parade of sight gags from first frame to last, is, once again, something to behold.
For grownups in attendance, Monsters University — with its twin themes of friendship and teamwork — might have benefited from a bit more thematic edge. But then, that might have cost the film its G rating.
And a bit of prequelitis creeps in as you might expect for any film trying to live up to the heady expectations created by its universally beloved predecessor.
So, yes, for viewers hoping for a further development of the characters and relationships introduced in Monsters, Inc. and a resonant emotional payoff, the prequel comes up a bit short. But for anyone just looking for another visit to the scary delights of Monstropolis, this campus comedy does the family-audience trick.
So we’ll graduate 2½ stars out of 4 for the cheery and amiable toon, Monsters University. It might not feel as fresh and inspired as Inc., but it’s still bright and breezy and refuses to go down without a fright.