Who would have foreseen a sequel to the 2001 Pixar classic Monster's Inc twelve years after the fact, let alone a prequel? Aside from the three Toy Story movies, Pixar seemed to have avoided the modern fad of dragging out franchises beyond their natural lifespan. I'm presuming this probably had something to do with the Disney acquisition of Pixar in 2006, but I don't know or care enough to do the research. All I know is that I was not expecting to see Mike and Sully in action again, much less in a prequel. But I guess prequels are the big things these days.
But at least with animation we don't have the problems of live actors aging, such as having to look at a septuagenarian Ian McKellen and pretend what we are watching is taking place sixty year before LOTR, or pretending like we are supposed to be excited by a stodgy, 69 year old Harrison Ford still pretending to be Indiana Jones. No, in animation we can avoid all those pitfalls, so it isn't quite so bleak.
Monster's University was actually quite entertaining. It tells the story of how Mike and Sully met at college, how an intense rivalry transformed into a vibrant friendship, and how Mike and Sully use their mutual talents and differences to compliment each other. I would say this last part is really the moral premise of the entire film: When we try to be everything to everyone on our own we fall flat on our face, but when we recognize the diversity of gifts we all possess, we compliment each other and succeed together. Decent message for kids who haven't quite figured out how to integrate their talents and interests within a larger career or goal.
First, the good. Same humor we have come to expect out of Pixar, with great supporting characters; the lame fraternity 'Oozma Kappa' that Mike and Sully joined were great comic relief and fit in well with the overall plot. Even though the technology has advanced twelve years, Pixar did not try to go out of the way to wow us with any new effects of jazzy sequences. They were relatively restrained, focusing instead on character development and moral dilemmas with just enough action to keep us engaged. It worked together really well. The story was uplifting, and even more unique, the plot featured neither a love interest, nor a villain. Sure, there were antagonists, but no real "bad guy." The plot was able to carry its own weight focusing solely on the development between Sully and Mike and their interactions with the supporting characters at Monster's University. I think this is worthy of praise.
There are only two real negative things I can say about the film, and they are both minor. First, a common pitfall I see when watching films set in college that are also meant for kids - that is, a lot of jokes and situations that reference certain aspects of college life that would be utterly lost on most children viewers. For example, in Monster's University, the role and culture of college fraternities and sororities is central to the plot. But does my 8 year old understand what fraternities and sororities are? There are a few things like this in the movie that require an adult understanding of college life that were simply lost on my kids.
Secondly, because this is a prequel, it takes place prior to the time that Mike and Sully discovered the power latent in children's laughter. In Monster's University, we are still in the economy of scream. Since the whole point of attending college at Monster's University is to become a scarer, fear, terror and the art of fright are prominent themes in the film. They handle it in a light hearted way, but even so, Monster's University cannot help but being a bit scarier than Monster's Inc. I did not say the movie was darker, because there is a difference between being dark and being scary; if it makes any sense, I guess I would say Monster's University manages to scarier without being dark. The Dean and the Librarian are particularly frightening, and there were a few points when I had to cover the eyes of my 5 year old. Plus, as I said, since the emphasis is on scaring, there are a lot more scenes of monsters creeping into children's bedrooms and scaring them than in the first movie.
All in all, I enjoyed it and my kids thought it was a worthy sequel. I give is 2.5 out of 3.