The original Monsters, Inc. was a big hit for Pixar, showcasing what the studio could do when given free rein to create an entire world for its characters to play in—a gift first teased with the big city in A Bug’s Life, and later spotlighted in WALL-E and (for better or worse) Cars. People loved Monsters, Inc. and people wanted more of it, to the point where Disney was ready to pull the trigger on a non-Pixar sequel until new CEO Bob Iger took over and simply bought the Toy Story studio (foreshadowing some other big moves from Iger’s tenure). That opened the door for Pixar to do a sequel on its own terms, but it still took another eight years for Monsters University to make it to theaters.
One reason it may have taken so long for that to happen is that Monsters, Inc. ends on a fairly definitive note. The monsters find an energy source more potent than scares, Mike and Sulley are friends again, and the world Pixar created is bright and playful enough that there’s no reason to think some new threat might someday come along and change that. So Pixar took the only other route, and made a prequel—gently breaking the canon of the first film, which implied that Mike and Sulley were lifelong friends, to reveal that the two met in college. That gives Monsters University an easy opportunity to repeat what went so well in the first movie, showcasing the performances of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sulley and the depth and warmth that comes through when their pair’s friendship is tested.
In the first movie, the two have an argument in an ice cave over what to do about Boo that blows up when a furious Mike unloads on Sulley for ruining their future as scarers, even though he did it for a good reason. A similar argument unfolds in Monsters University immediately after the conclusion of the “Scare Games,” for which Mike’s underdog fraternity, Oozma Kappa, recruits Sulley as a ringer after he’s kicked out of his cool frat. Thanks to Sulley’s natural scare abilities and Mike’s extensive practice and studying, OK makes it to the final round: a scare simulator, with OK’s future at Monsters University entirely dependent on Mike outscoring the competition. And he does it! But only because Sulley rigged the machine to give him the highest possible score. Mike then unloads on Sulley for potentially ruining their future as scarers, even though he did it for a good reason, effectively reiterating the argument from the last time (but without the added knife-twist of both monsters refusing to back down while simultaneously recognizing that they don’t want to fight).
The scene in University is an obvious turn for the plot, manufacturing conflict between the two friends in a way that feels too predictable. But it still manages to work because of what Crystal and Goodman bring to the characters. Mike is mad at Sulley for cheating, but Crystal makes it clear in his performance that he’s more heartbroken than anything—Mike has spent his whole life being told he can’t be a scarer, and just when he thinks he’s proven everyone wrong, he finds out that it’s all a lie. Meanwhile, Goodman’s Sulley is as much of a teddy bear as he’s always been (even with that awful hair spike), so it’s easy to recognize that he’s telling the truth when he explains to Mike that his heart was in the right place. It stings, even if it is a familiar sting, and it’s a moment that reminds you what shameless cash-ins Pixar sequels can be, while also confirming Monsters University as one of their more artful cash-ins. The film isn’t the worst entry in the Pixar canon, but at most it’s a comforting rerun of some things that the studio has already proven it can do well.