"Monsters University," the colorful prequel to Pixar's 2001 hit, does not reach the giddy heights of the studio's earlier triumphs; but few will wish to resist its charms.
Chief among these is a gratifying underdog motif that imparts a strong message about teamwork, honesty and perseverance.
As suggested by the title, "MU" recounts the college days of monsters Mike and Sulley (voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman); these are the guys who went on to successful careers scaring children, bottling the screams and - in a quirk possible only in the world of Pixar - thereby supplying power for Monstropolis.
This film publicity image released by Disney-Pixar shows Mike Wazowski, voiced by Billy Crystal in a scene from “Monsters University.”
But the pair, who initially dislike each other here, have trouble fitting in at MU - Mike because he isn't scary, Sulley because he's a BMOC and thinks he needn't study.
When both are ejected from the "Scarer" program, their only hope is to join a hapless fraternity that wants to win the college's annual "scare games."
None of this sounds terribly clever - and it isn't.
The whiz-bang storytelling of such Pixar masterpieces as "Wall-E," "Monsters Inc." and "The Incredibles" - where there was often a surprise around the next corner - well, that era seems to be over for now.
Recent entries such as "Toy Story 3," "Ratatouille" and "Brave" relied instead on Pixar's other strengths: strong characters, action scenes both funny and suspenseful, and themes that are wholesome but not preachy.
"MU" boasts one mild twist - call it a surprise - that works very nicely; but most of its appeal is the ragtag bunch working against the odds with Mike and Sulley.
There's the furry, arch-shaped Art; a good-hearted, five-eyed dweeb who lives with his gushing, five-eyed mother; a middle-aged, tentacled salesman who's lost his job and returned to college; and a two-headed creature, only half of whom claims to be majoring in dance.
Together with our well-known duo, the so-called Oozma Kappa frat pack stumbles and fumbles through thrillingly comical competitions toward what would seem to be a foregone conclusion.
There's nothing especially brilliant here, and much of the humor is broad and slapsticky - but it works. Kids will enjoy it, adults will find several laugh-out-loud moments and everyone will pick up numerous references to the film's beloved predecessor.
"MU" looks great; the vocal work is excellent (though I still say, put the names up front so we don't spend the whole movie trying to figure out whose voice that is); and all of it floats on a lively, brassy score by Randy Newman.
The short that precedes "MU" - "Blue Umbrella" - is particularly lovely, evoking a European art film; and the closing credits are worthwhile too - especially the nice little post-credit scene.
With "Planes" due in August - looking like an airborne version of "Cars" - Pixar seems to be its resting on its laurels.
But let's face it; those are some pretty great laurels.
*** (out of four)
The film is rated G.