“Monsters University” is sweet. It’s life-affirming. It will make you laugh.
But it is not superb. It’s not ground-breaking. It will not make you cry.
No one would care about those last three demerits if “Monsters University” were not a Pixar film. If this were made by DreamWorks Animation, it would be hailed as a triumph. For proof, take a look at the reaction to last summer’s “Madagascar 3,” which got swell reviews because it wasn’t as bad as critics expected.
Pixar does not have the benefit of low expectations. Even today, five years on from the miraculous period of “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E,” we expect excellence from Pixar every time out. When Pixar delivers something very good, like “Brave,” or merely good, like “Cars 2,” the world reacts as if M. Night Shyamalan took over the studio.
Compounding the discouraging signs of “Monsters U” is that this is a companion to one of Pixar’s best and most beloved films, 2001’s “Monsters Inc.” At least Pixar’s creative team had the sense to make a prequel instead of a sequel. “Monsters Inc.” ended with one of the most perfect final shots in cinema history. You can’t follow that. Who wants to see a continuation where Boo grows up and we learn her real name? I want the moment when Boo shouts, “Kitty!” and Sulley’s face lights up to last forever. Excuse me a second. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
Realizing they shouldn’t go forward with the story, the filmmakers go backward. “Monsters U” is set a decade or two earlier, revealing how tall and furry James P. Sullivan (voiced again by John Goodman) meets short and round Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) during their freshman year at the titular school, the most prestigious in the monster world.
From their first day of class in the university’s Scaring School, Sulley is the Mozart to Mike’s Salieri. Scaring comes so easily to Sulley he doesn’t bother bringing a pencil or notebook to class. “You don’t need to study scaring,” he says. “You just do it.”
Mike, meanwhile, has been preparing for college since elementary school. He has studied the philosophies of fright so thoroughly he knows the four key aspects of a roar by heart. Yet when Mike tries to put all this devoted learning into action, he gets more laughs than screams. Sulley’s lackadaisical attitude to his own natural gifts drives Mike crazy.
The script – which is credited to director Don Scanlon and two other Pixar veterans moving into leadership roles, Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson – plays around with the clichés and conventions of the campus comedy. Folksingers on the quad. Stolen mascots. That one fraternity filled with the obnoxious popular students (Nathan Fillion voices their president). Of course there is a stern administrator, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a dragon from the waist up and a centipede from the waist down.
“Monsters University” also borrows ideas from other college movies, including (predictably) “Animal House” and (less predictably) “The Paper Chase.” Eventually, it settles into playing out as a G-rated version of “Revenge of the Nerds.”
After a fight gets them expelled from the Scaring School, Mike and Sulley learn they can be readmitted to the program only if their fraternity wins the annual all-university Scare Games. But the only fraternity that will take them is the lamest, Oozma Kappa. The frat is home to lovable outcasts like middle-aged returning student Don (Joel Murray), the two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley) and Art (Charlie Day), a hairy hippie shaped like a big U.
The odds are already against the underdog fraternity, and it doesn’t help that Mike and Sulley don’t trust each other and rarely stop sniping.
The problem at the center of “Monsters U” is the foreknowledge that bedevils most prequels. Mike and Sulley start out as enemies in this story, but in “Monsters Inc.” they are the best of friends. So before “Monsters U” starts, we know how it must end. Despite a few surprising turns of plot through the climax, the conclusion is never in doubt. The story generates no tension at all.
It does generate a fair share of comic delights. The script is filled with jokes and sight gags, and most get a laugh. When Mike meets his roommate, it’s not whom you expect, and the revelation leads to several funny moments. The hapless nature of Oozma Kappa extends to their victory chant, “We’re OK! We’re OK!”
From the first “Toy Story” to the second, the perspective shifted from Buzz to Woody. A similar shift occurs here. In “Monsters Inc.” Mike was the supporting player in Sulley’s story. In “Monsters U” the roles are reversed. The story focuses on Mike’s quest to find his role in monster society. Sulley tags along and learns a few things in spite of himself.
“Monsters U” doesn’t have the heart of “Monsters Inc.” or any in the first wave of Pixar pictures, but when Mike and Sulley discover their friendship and the strength it gives them, they share a few touching moments. As in the first film, the warm vocal work of Crystal and Goodman grounds these fantastic creatures in credible emotion and life experiences.
“Monsters U” is a solid and affable animated comedy, and the Pixar team has not lost its eye for visual splendor. On the movie’s surface, there’s little to complain about. Yet it is difficult to forget the days when Pixar knocked one out of the park every time. These days the studio seems content to hit doubles and the occasional triple.
The only reason to be disappointed with “Monsters University” is that Pixar used to be capable of so much more. Exhibit A would be “Monsters Inc.”
TIME: 1 hour, 42 minutes
STARRING: Voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren
PLOT: Years before working at Monsters Inc., Mike (Crystal) and Sulley (Goodman) are rival freshmen at Monsters University. A crisis in their academic career forces them to become partners, but can they become friends?