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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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Monsters University is a lively lesson about perseverance
Ghoul school
A one-eyed underdog.
A one-eyed underdog.

Ratatouille, like most of Pixar's feature films, has supporters who think it's a masterpiece. As brilliant as Brad Bird's direction and visual style are in that film, the story has always left me vaguely pissed off. And now, thanks to Monsters University, the new prequel to Monsters, Inc., there's a chance to show exactly why. That's because Monsters University is Ratatouille's opposite.

It's easy to approach prequels as mere cash-grabs, and perhaps Monsters University's story could have been told just as effectively with different protagonists than Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman). But as long as the folks at Pixar were going to visit these Monsters, Inc. characters in college, they couldn't have chosen a more fitting premise: what it means to discover who you are, and what it's going to take to become who you want to be.

Director Dan Scanlon and his writing team start even farther back than college, with Mike as a schoolboy outcast on a field trip to the Monsters, Inc. scare floor. There he falls in love with the idea of becoming a pro scarer, which inspires him to study scaring at Monsters University. And while nobody hits the books harder than Mike -- especially not classmate Sully, who's convinced that his innate ability will suffice -- he fails a key exam. Both he and Sully are forced out of the program.

The opportunity to get back into the scaring department emerges through a university-wide event called "Scare Games." Here Monsters University adopts a familiar college-movie trope: a competition between the outcasts and the elites. Mike and Sully hitch their wagon to a fraternity of losers that includes middle-aged salesman Don (Joel Murray) and a two-headed creature named Terri/Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley). This structure allows for plenty of lively set pieces. While Scanlon and the animators play around with basic college-set gags and hit-or-miss jokes, the plot is firmly anchored in the story arc rather than easy references.

But what makes Monsters University particularly satisfying is its message about talent. Ratatouille was all about the primacy of pure talent: recognizing it, nurturing it and knowing when to admit you haven't got it. Monsters University takes Mike's journey in a different direction; he's like a one-eyed Rudy, a little guy on a mission who refuses to believe anyone who tells him he doesn't have what it takes to do the one thing he really wants to do. Sully gets his own side of the story, facing family expectations while lacking Mike's ferocious work ethic. The two foes become teammates for the best of reasons: to help one another achieve their goals.

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