‘University’ reveals tale of monsters’ meeting

It says something about the summer movie season, when the film starring the giant eyeball and blue-and-pink yeti offer a more complex character study than any of the buddy comedies or superhero dramas.

“Monsters University” is Pixar’s first attempt at a prequel, and it delivers plenty of laughs, plus a few thoughtful moments. “Monsters, Inc.” loyalists won’t feel betrayed, even with a new director. This isn’t the Emeryville studio’s most thematically ambitious effort, but they can’t all be post-apocalyptic critiques of consumerism and fascism allegories like “WALL-E” and “Toy Story 3.”

It’s a credit to Pixar films that most could work as stage plays. “Madagascar 3” and “Epic” aren’t bad movies, but they operate at an overly caffeinated pace, transfixing small children while numbing more discriminating minds. “Monsters University,” even in its silliest scenes, is filmed by live-action rules. You can appreciate the work of the cinematographer and film editor. Comedic moments are given time to build. There are unexpected story turns.

Longtime Pixar story artist Dan Scanlon takes over — presumably after watching “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds” a few hundred times each. Parents whose children watch “Monsters, Inc.” three times per week will remember that walking eye socket Mike and furry beast Sully became best friends in fourth grade. Forget that — they actually met in college. Our setting is idyllic Monsters University, where the competitive School of Scaring houses the elite students.

Yes, “Monster’s University” has Greek games and underdogs competing with an alpha fraternity, but this movie owes just as much to “The Paper Chase.” Animation, monsters and the Socratic method? Scanlon and the crew make it work.

What looks to be a paint-by-numbers endeavor is actually a pretty big juggling act. Scanlon and the writers must retain the spirit of the original movie, successfully lampoon two genres and somehow insert the expected emotional climax that viewers have come to expect from Pixar movies. The ending is satisfying, like everything else boosted by the most photorealistic animation we’ve seen in a feature film.