It should be remedial school, not an institution of higher learning, for Monsters University, an alarmingly lame effort from Pixar, the Oxbridge of animation studios. A prequel arriving 12 years after its progenitor, Monsters, Inc., this marks the third sub-par film in a row from Pixar, after Cars 2 and Brave, suggesting that the brain trust in Emeryville has lost a bit of its edge. Certainly, this genial and inoffensive G-rated lark about cute characters doing their darndest to become scary monsters will play well enough with its intended audience (most members of which weren't even born when the original came out), but it will register as a notable artistic underachiever with people who expect the best from its maker.
Inventiveness and a sense of creative inspiration are what set the best Pixar ventures apart, and these are the elements conspicuously lacking this time around, to the point where Monsters University almost feels like a film made to fill a slot in a release schedule rather than something that simply had to be made for its own organic reasons. It wasn't this way in the old days.
Instead of trying to move the story of Mike and Sulley forward, debutant Pixar director Dan Scanlon and his co-screenwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, who both collaborated on the Monsters, Inc. script, elected to make this a how-did-they-become-who-they-are story concentrating on their formative college experiences. The immediate tip-off that we're in prequel territory is that, when first seen, the green, one-eyed Mike (once again voiced by Billy Crystal) is wearing braces, which are replaced by a retainer once he goes to college.
Specifically, he has his sights set on the School of Scaring. This is the heart of the university for the diverse mix of monsters who attend the beautifully designed and appointed campus, the elite proving ground for candidates hoping to excel at scaring little kids out of their minds. “I've been waiting for this my whole life,” admits Mike, who is joined in the incoming class by James P. Sullivan, or Sulley (John Goodman, back as well), an imposing green-and-purple-haired bear of a monster whose father is a legendary scarer.
The film's reasonable but not exactly pulse-quickening central idea is to draw a contrast between the eager and determined Mike, whose decidedly unscary physique forces him to be ever-more resourceful and hard-working, and the more blasé Sulley, whose legacy status endows him with a take-it-for-granted attitude. But when both are kicked out of the Scary Program by the imposing Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a striking centipede-like creature with wings, the polar opposites must look for a way to get a shot at redemption.
The road back is provided by the Scare Games, a competition among all the campus frat houses. If Mike's team wins, he'll be allowed back in the School of Scaring; if not, he's out for good, along with Sulley. What follows sparks sporadic laughs but is far too pat and cute: The two outcasts team up with the biggest nerds around, the generally rotund and terminally unscary members of the Oozma Kappa fraternity, whose very presence calls into question the entire admissions policy for the university.
These characters could scarcely be less likely candidates for careers in scaring: Among them are fat, bald, middle-aged former salesman Don; a hairy and flexible version of the St. Louis Gateway Arch named Art; a two-headed, two-eyed creature that likes to argue with itself, and a blob-like dweeb aptly named Squishy. In nutty competitions markedly less amusing than the contests in last year's far-more-imaginative Wreck-It-Ralph, the Oozma crew makes it to the finals against the ruling Roar Omega Roar fraternity, to which Sulley belonged before his disgrace.
The fact that Mike and Sulley are ultimately forced to admit the obvious, that they'll never be genuinely scary monsters, provides the story with a bit of mature leavening that will likely go right over the heads of 90 percent of the audience, who will instead be amused and distracted by the vast number of funny-looking critters who, if nothing else, populate the most diverse campus on Earth.
A humdrum straight line of a film, Monsters University never surprises, goes off in unexpected directions or throws you for a loop in the manner of the best Pixar stories. Nor does it come close to elating through the sheer imagination of its conceits and storytelling; Toy Story 3, three years and three Pixar films back, was the last time that happened. Mike spends his entire university career trying to prove to himself that he's “something special.” “But I'm not,” he must finally confess. And neither is the film.