Review: “Monsters University”

Mike and Sully are back in the prequel "Monsters University," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.Pixar is widely considered the industry leader in computer animated films, but the studio’s immaculate image detail and inventive character design are not what earned them that position. Instead, people love Pixar more for their narrative accomplishments, that they show us things we’ve never seen before (or ever expected to see)—a balloon-powered house flying to a South American paradise, a rat who aspires to cook in a gourmet Paris restaurant, the world from the perspective of a boy’s toys, a realm of monsters who harvest the scares of human children for energy—and that they do so with likable, human characters (even when said characters are another species).

Unfortunately, Pixar’s latest film “Monsters University,” a prequel to their 2001 treasure “Monsters, Inc.”, follows in the footsteps of last year’s hollow female empowerment vehicle “Brave” in making one wonder whether the studio has lost touch with what makes their work great. You’d expect this kind of formulaic, cash-grabbing sequel from Pixar’s parent company, Disney, but not from the creators of the “Toy Story” franchise, which only grew in ingenuity with each new installment. Sure, “Monsters University” is as good as most kids’ fare—the visuals are delightful and you’d need at least three hands to count the amusing easter-eggs—but given that Pixar can make virtually anything they want because their name ensures box office revenue, it’s a disappointing film to see them waste their time on.

Not only is “Monsters University” full of things we’ve already seen in the original (the novelty of the “scare floor” concept has worn off), its “new” narrative elements are also passé. Telling the story of how Mike (voice of Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) met at the titular educational institution, a feeder school for Monsters Inc., the movie fuses two of the most played-out genres in existence, the buddy comedy and the college comedy. I was rather excited to see how Pixar would make a G-rated product out these typically vulgar genres, figuring they’d manage to extract an original product from the unorthodox presentation. Nope: the writers simply removed the vulgarity, preserving the clichés that date back to “Animal House,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” and even earlier, as Mike and Sulley’s fraternity Oozma Kappa vies to upset the dominant Roar Omega Roar in the campus Scare Games, which they must win to be allowed to remain in the scaring program after unsatisfactory first-semester performance.

But more than the stale story, what’s most disappointing about “Monsters University” is that it lacks the human element of “Monsters, Inc.,” which was all about its central relationships, between Mike and Sulley as well as Sulley and the little girl Boo. The latter is ditched altogether, as this is a prequel that takes place before Boo was even born, and the former is a watered-down version of its original self. By the end of the film, Mike and Sulley become the characters we remember, but the early scenes are dominated by their initial conflict, which is utterly paint-by-numbers. Each possesses a trait that the other wants—Mike’s a good student, Sulley’s a good scarer in the field—so their jealousy initially manifests as distaste for one another before they inevitably forge their enduring bond. This is a plainly textbook buddy movie dynamic; if you hadn’t seen Mike and Sulley’s relationship in “Monsters, Inc.”, the only thing keeping you from viewing them as disposable characters would be their neat design (Mike the neon-green cyclops, Sulley the fluffy, purple-spotted hulk).

But I’m ragging awfully hard on “Monsters University” because of high expectations for Pixar. If you examine the movie not on the Pixar curve, but the curve of the other big-studio animated films released this year—“The Croods,” “Epic,” and “Escape from Planet Earth”—it’s perfectly acceptable. Kids will enjoy all the vividly colored, bizarrely built monsters and the simple plot, which they haven’t seen a hundred times before like you and I, and adults will appreciate the occasional gag targeted at their more sophisticated sensibilities. Just don’t go in expecting another “Toy Story 2.”