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Dec 01st
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Fright Classes

film muTake a fun summer refresher course at 'Monsters University'

Looking for something fun to do with the kids this holiday weekend? Why not sign up for a refresher course at Monsters University? This lighthearted prequel to the Pixar/Disney 2001 animated blockbuster, Monsters Inc., reunites audiences with some of their favorite characters and introduces some cool new ones in a family-friendly tale of friendship, destiny, diversity, and higher education, told with maximum humor and heart.

Monsters Inc. is a hard act to follow, with its entertaining and audacious premise that the monsters that lurk under the bed and pop out of the closet to frighten children at night are not only real, they are proud members of an elite labor force who punch a time clock and take the work very seriously. The screams they harvest at night from the human kids they scare silly are captured in canisters to supply fuel for the city and the economy in the alternative reality where the monsters live.

There's no way to top this premise, so incoming director Dan Scanlon and returning scriptwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird backpedal instead. Monsters University is an origin story on how two of the top "Scarers" found their path in life. The first film showed big, blue, fur-ball James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman), and his partner, diminutive, green, cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) at the top of their game. In Monsters U, we see their rocky road to friendship, and the personal obstacles each faces along the way.

In a prologue, little Mike (voice of Noah Johnston) and a school bus full of little monsters go on a field trip to the power company, Monsters Inc., to watch the professional Scarers at work. Mike—who always seems to be left out when the other kids pair up, but never loses his cheery attitude—is completely smitten, and determines to become a Scarer when he grows up. Despite the inconvenient fact that he's not scary.

Nevertheless, Mike reads every book on scaring there is and finally enters his freshman year at Monsters U—where all the top Scarers graduate from. His new roomie is slippery chameleon Randy (Steve Buscemi, returning in the role), now a shy, uncertain frosh. His nemesis is cocky, entitled Sulley. Unlike Mike, Sulley never has to crack a book; his family lineage and big, scary size insure that he can breeze through his courses with ease.        

When their bickering rivalry gets them both thrown out of the Scarer program, Mike knows the only way to prove himself is to win the annual campus Scare Games competition. But it's a team contest; both Mike and Sulley have to join the dorky frat house, Oozma Kappa (OK) to compete. Which leads to plenty of inspiring pep talks and heart-to-hearts as Mike and Sulley find common ground and lead their underdog team in the games against the campus jocks of Roar Omega Roar (ROR).

Part frat house comedy, part Hunger Games, with a soupcon of Hogwarts, Monsters U delivers some engaging messages with a very light touch. In their various trials (especially an unexpected and exciting finale that finds them loose together in the dangerous human world), Mike and Sulley learn they can accomplish way more as a team than alone. To inspire his frat brothers, Mike leads them after-hours back to Monsters Inc. to watch the masters at work, where the only thing the pro Scarers have in common is their diversity.

Although, that said, the movie could use a few more female monsters. Unlike the individuated boys of OK, and ROR, the sorority girls of PNK are identical with their three eyes and lavender-pink Marlo Thomas flips. However, the movie's most imaginative character may be the imperious Dean Hardscrabble. An upright reptile whose dozens of centipede feet scrabble ominously across the floor, with an impressive set of giant dragon-like red wings, she's part Maleficent, part "Night on Bald Mountain's" devil, with a fine, chilly voice provided by Helen Mirren.

But it's also just fun to watch all the monsters (and a more sweet-natured bunch you couldn't imagine) do their thing in the ever unspooling college life sight gags—from football games to frat parties to finals. If you want your kids to enjoy education, enroll them in Monsters University.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY ★★★ (out of four)
With the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, and Sean Hayes. A Walt Disney Pictures release. Written by Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Scanlon. Directed by Dan Scanlon. (G) 104 minutes.

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