I've watched a lot of Pixar's output over the years, and never been disappointed, but for various reasons I'd missed both of these when they came out; Monsters, Inc. because of budget and timing constraints (and I never had a copy around the house to watch when I was at leisure later), and Monsters University because, well, it was a follow-on and I didn't see a point in watching it without having watched the first one.
However, I've finally been able to watch them, courtesy of my friend Eric Palmer, and thus can review them!
Both films take place primarily in a world of monsters (and they call themselves that), but one that is a rather obvious reflection of our own. There may be monster-specific issues and characteristics, but they still have most of the same interests and issues we have – love, careers, competition, education, etc., all follow the same basic molds.
In Monsters, Inc., our main characters Mike Wazowski and his best friend and partner James P. Sullivan ("Sully") work at Monsters, Inc., as a professional Scarer team. Scarers go through doors into the dangerous "human" world, with the job of scaring children. This isn't for amusement, or because monsters have some natural need to do so; there is instead a highly practical reason. The screams of terrified children are a huge source of energy for the monster universe. One well-captured scream can apparently run multiple households for a considerable amount of time, and these screams are the foundation of their entire energy industry.
Of course, being a Scarer is a highly prestigious profession, combining acting prowess with nerves of steel and a willingness to risk oneself for one's job, because not only is every child different – and thus requiring a different tactic to get the best scream out of them – but also it is well-known throughout the monster world that human children, and many of the articles they contact, are lethally toxic.
Thus, a Scarer's job is something like a cross between a nuclear plant worker, a daredevil, and a professional actor. Scarers work in partnership with a support person who helps research their targets, advises them on tactics, and controls the door operation. In this case, Mike – a small green spherical creature with one giant eye – is the advisor and tactician, while Sully – a massive blue-and-purple furred creature reminiscent of a fluffy Bigfoot crossed with a bear – is the Scarer.
At the time the movie starts, Sully's the top Scarer in the company, rivaled only by Randall Boggs, a creepy looking creature like a cross between a chameleon and a centipede. As the pair leave the Scaring installation (which is of course locked down every night), Mike suddenly remembers he left key paperwork unfiled, and he has a "hot date". Sully covers for him and goes to fetch the paperwork… to find that his rival, Randall, was apparently trying to improve his numbers by doing additional Scaring after-hours. By itself this would be bad – it violates many company rules – but far worse is that Randall left the door active, and a human child escapes into the monster world!
This movie's strength – and that of its sequel/prequel – lies in the characters. Sully and Mike are a team with a clear history that keeps them together, even though Mike at first appears to be a much less thoughtful and likeable person than Sully. Even the little girl – who the monsters name "Boo" and who serves mostly as a MacGuffin for much of the story – is given a definite personality that makes her more than just a problem-coupon for the monsters to catch.
By itself, of course, the plot of escaped cute and dangerous creature (which is partly the fault of our heroes) would be enough to run a kid's movie. But Pixar never stops at "enough", and there's a lot more going on in Monsters, Inc. than meets the eye at first. Randall isn't just a dickhead and the whole industry of scream harvesting has details not obvious on the surface, leading to a much more complex, fast-moving, and intense storyline. I was caught up in Mike and Sully's story and Pixar did a great job of setting up every twist and turn of the plot without either hitting us over the head with it, or pulling things out of thin air to get the plot resolved. This was a very good movie and well worth watching!
Monsters University is actually a prequel to Monsters, Inc., following Mike Wazowski's first meeting with a professional Scarer and his determination to become one himself, culminating of course with his admission to the prestigious Monsters University and its top-rated Scarer program. The younger Mike we see here is an innocent geek, a book-reading studious Scarer-fanboy, one that hasn't gained the layer of cynicism that the older Mike of Monsters, Inc. displays; similarly, Sully is a jock, son of a prestigious Scarer family and clearly expecting to coast through the school to his rightful place at the top of the Scaring profession. Mike, by contrast, believes that all he has to do is study and work hard, and he'll be the best Scarer ever.
Neither of them, of course, is entirely right.
This is a classic "college hijinks" movie, done with monsters. It has all the same elements – the nerd and jock who have to learn to get along, the top-dog fraternity versus the outcasts, the hardass teachers that just might have hearts of gold – or not – and the Big School Competition where the underdogs have to try to beat the obvious champions.
True to Pixar's habit, they fulfill many of our expectations while upsetting the ones that are too obvious, too hackneyed, or too easy, in order to tell a better overall story – and give us more characters to enjoy, or to hate. Even Randall Boggs is given more depth here, showing the person that he might have become if things had gone differently. Pixar also throws in deliberate references to all the classic movies of teenage high-school/college drama, including one to Carrie that is both so obvious that as soon as I saw the setup I turned to Eric and said "I'm thinkin'… Carrie here,", and at the same time is so effective that the nod works without feeling at all strained or overdone.
Ultimately this is still a movie about Mike and Sully, and it is this character interaction that keeps the movie powerful and worth watching – and it is very worth watching.
I don't know if Pixar intends to ever return to this universe – or if they feel, given the resolution they found to the original Monsters, Inc., that there's no real stories to tell there any more – but seeing the two together is a real treat, and encourages me to believe that if they do try again, there's going to be a lot of fun waiting at the theater!
If you haven't seen Monsters, Inc. or Monsters University, I highly recommend you do!