During our recent set visit to Pixar Animation Studios for Monsters University, we were treated to the first 40 minutes of footage from the film. This first act had the task of reintroducing audiences to younger – and less mature – versions of Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman). The majority of this time was spent allowing viewers to acclimate themselves to these new looks at familiar characters; it isn’t until nearly the end of the first act that a host of new characters are introduced by their names and individually bizarre personality traits. While I had some reservations about a Monsters, Inc. prequel heading into the visit, this footage preview turned me right around and got me excited for the full film; I can’t wait to see it! Hit the jump for more and be aware that spoilers follow.
Before we were introduced to a college version of Mike, our first glimpse of him came as a cute little elementary school monster out with his class on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. It becomes quickly apparent that not only is Mike undersized, he’s underappreciated by his classmates (and even his own relatives). Mike tags along with his teacher, Karen Graves (voiced by Bonnie Hunt). Inside Monsters, Inc., the kids journey to the Scare Floor and are treated to a visit by some top-notch Scarers, including “Frightening” Frank McCay (John Krasinski). Stuck quite literally at the back of the class, Mike busts his way through the line and ends up in some very dangerous territory as he takes an unauthorized Scaring trip with McKay. The thrill of the scare is enough to snare young Mikey, who now possesses the lifelong ambition to become a great Scarer himself.
I mention the above footage scene for scene since it’s important to know that Monsters University is essentially Mike’s story. Yes, we do meet Sulley in college along with Mike and the plot does unfold around their relationship, but Mike is the heart of this tale and the audience is with him from the getgo. By the time he gets to college, he’s a little closer to the Mike we know from the original film. He’s trimmed down and smoothed out a bit and sports a nerdy retainer (be sure to look for upcoming interviews with the film’s creature designers and other artists for more on this process), but he’s recognizably Mike Wazowski. He also happens to be that college kid who’s really gung-ho and super excited to get to class and outperform everyone. He certainly rubs some people the wrong way but maintains his ambitious academic focus throughout the first semester.
The reintroduction of some of the Monsters, Inc. characters in Monsters University is a fun bit of movie watching that I won’t spoil here. Randall (Steve Buscemi) certainly makes an appearance and it’s quite a nice turn, I must say. Keeping an eye out for other familiar monsters may sound like an easy task but the animators of Monsters University have absolutely packed this film full of creatures great and small. There are brand new monsters who swim, slime and fly their way around campus; there are actually buildings specially adapted for swimmers and fliers. One such wicked-winged monster is the fantastic new addition, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). Originally conceived as a male figure, the filmmakers wanted to see a great female Scarer. Dean Hardscrabble was born, a monster that is part venomous centipede, part dragon, part bat and all ferocity. As history’s greatest Scarer and the institution’s most superior teacher, I’ll give you two guesses as to who Mike and Sulley run afoul of before long.
Ah, Sulley. His entrance into the film comes a little later on than you’d expect, but remember that this is Mike’s story after all. Sulley is trimmed down a bit from his bulkier self in Monsters, Inc., but he’s got plenty of bravado and cool-kid swagger. He’s a natural Scarer from a long line of storied monsters. As such, he’s more than happy to goof around all semester and coast on his innate talent while Mike constantly studies for the final exam, his one shot at sticking around at Scare School. Fail, and you’re out!
Needless to say, things don’t go too well for the odd couple and they both manage to find themselves chucked out of Scare School. The only way back in is to prove their worth at the school’s Scare Games, a Greek competition that rewards the top team. Unfortunately, neither Mike nor Sulley are in a fraternity … until Oozma Kappa comes along. These guys are basically your Tri-Lambs from Revenge of the Nerds or your Old School guys without the cool. They live in the house of brother Scott “Squishy” Squibbles (Pixar’s Peter Sohn), who actually still lives with his mom. After a brief induction ceremony to officially welcome Mike and Sulley as part of the gang, the footage cuts off and we’re left wanting to see much, much more.
Like I said, coming into the screening, I wasn’t 100% behind the idea of a prequel. Monsters University changed my mind in a heartbeat. It was great to be back in the world of Monsters, Inc. but viewing it through a lens that has such a broader and more encompassing angle made the characters and their lives that much more believable. Pixar has made significant technological advancements that allow them to really expand the world in this prequel and it looks predictably gorgeous. There are subtle nuances to every scene that we will go into in a future installment, but which the casual movie-goer will hopefully experience on some sub-conscious level. After all, the animators should disappear from a scene and let their work speak for itself. Pixar’s artists know this as well as anyone and they use their own transparency as a litmus test for the film (which they totally pass, by the way).
Monsters University lets you enjoy the beautiful creation of some of the most talented artists in the industry with the solid backing of some of the best storytellers in the world. If the first act is any indication, Monsters University is sure to be a crowd pleaser and a near-perfect companion to Monsters, Inc. Get ready for a double feature!
Monsters University opens June 21st!