What is Pixar doing, settling for adequacy?
Monsters University, the weirdly charmless sequel to the animated 2001 Pixar hit Monsters, Inc., is no better or worse than the average (and I mean average) time-filling sequel cranked out by other animation houses. But there’s no point in talking about the movie without putting it in context with the reasons so many responded to Pixar’s best over the past few years.
Pixar’s best—Wall-E, Ratatouille and Up for me, along with a remarkable second tier of The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and the Toy Story trilogy—followed blueprints and formulas up to a point. But the various artists at Pixar, now affiliated with Disney, made their reputations on knowing when to throw all that away, and follow their instincts.
Cars, one of Pixar’s weaker efforts, turned into an $8 billion dollar global merchandise bonanza that made a sequel statistically impossible to avoid, though Cars 2 needn’t have been quite so mechanical and bizarrely nasty. This brings us to Monsters University, a film roughly on the Cars 2 achievement level.
Three credited writers labored to bring forth three or four good jokes amid a wearying tale of college anxieties and relentless peer pressure—just what the preteens need to inculcate a sense of higher-ed dread. It’s a prequel by definition, not a sequel, and the writers clearly have studied the Oz-prequel musical Wicked for pointers.
We meet chipper, one-eyed Mike (Billy Crystal reprising his vocal chores) as a tot, dreaming of attending Monsters U. someday. The day arrives, though when he meets his future best friend Sulley (John Goodman), they’re polar opposites: Mike the studious, hardworking if innately unfrightening monster-in-training, Sulley the shambling natural saddled with poor study habits and a bullying arrogance egged on by his recruitment by the meanest fraternity on campus.
How these two become friends is the crux of the screenplay, which spends an awful lot of time grinding through the annual Scare Games competition (The Hunger Games with fewer fatalities but more verbal taunts). For various reasons, the games bring Mike and Sulley and a bland group of supporting monsters onto the same team, where they learn the virtues of teamwork and playing to one’s eccentric strengths.
With that lesson, how did Monsters University turn out so defiantly conventional? So many questions. Was it really a good idea to have Mike and Sulley at each other’s throats for so much of director Dan Scanlon’s feature? Is it really a promising notion, satiric or otherwise, to pull a humiliating variation on the pig’s-blood bit from Carrie? There’s more genuine wit and invention in the four-minute short Mike’s New Car, made a year after Monsters, Inc., than in the entirety of this college-is-hell instructional video.
The animation studio’s triumphs, and even its solidly worthwhile accomplishments, appeal to a wonderfully wide age spectrum. Monsters University tries (and may well succeed fiscally). As usual, the actors are not the problem. Helen Mirren voices the fearsome Hogwartian headmaster (a dragon), and Steve Buscemi’s a valuable addition to the crew as Mike’s first college roommate, a chameleon. I enjoyed composer Randy Newman’s hard-driving variations on the theme of College Fight Song (plus a few bars of the old standby “Gaudeamus Igitur”). It’s nice seeing some of the better-known Monsters, Inc. critters show up as junior versions of themselves. But this time the calculation is all too evident.
Pixar has worked wonders. Just not lately, and not yet with sequels.
Monsters University (G) ★★☆☆☆