It's rare that a sequel actually lives up to the original, though Pixar has an impressive track record with its "Toy Story" trilogy. Rarer still is the sequel that's an improvement, which is what Pixar delivers with "Monsters University."
It's the chronological prequel to "Monsters, Inc.," the 2001 animated film that introduced the snarling behemoth James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and his ovoid sidekick, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). It became one of Pixar's biggest hits, not because of its convoluted premise -- something about a giant fear factory, magic doorways and children's screams powering the city of Monstropolis -- but because of the odd-couple friendship (and the two appealing voice actors) at its core.
"Monsters University" mostly dispenses with the elaborate mechanics and focuses on its two heroes, meeting for the first time at college. Mike, ever the one-eyed optimist, is determined to work hard and become a "top scarer" despite his small stature. Sulley, a legacy admission, believes natural talent excuses him from studying. ("Hey, bub, can I borrow a pencil?") Both, however, fail to impress Dean Hardscrabble, a chilly millipede with the voice of Helen Mirren, who threatens to eject them unless they win the annual Scare Games.
"Monsters University" is basically a lively college comedy along the lines of "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Legally Blonde," in which the underdog frat (Mike and Sulley reluctantly join Oozma Kappa) battles the cool kids (Roar Omega Roar). But it also recalls dramas like "The Paper Chase" and "A Yank at Oxford," in which college becomes an important test of mettle and character. Mike will learn an awful truth about himself, and the movie is wise not to fairy-dust it away. Credit goes equally to Crystal's heartfelt vocal performance, and to director and co-writer Dan Scanlon.
"Monsters University" has an emotional quality that its whimsical predecessor lacked. It has a happy ending, of course, but this movie also feels -- in its monstery way -- very real.
PLOT The prequel to "Monsters, Inc." harks back to the college days of future scarers Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan.
RATING G (family-friendly)
CAST Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren
BOTTOM LINE Even better than the original, with more heart and soul thanks to a starring role for Crystal's lovable Wazowski.