Let me tell you about my relationship with Pixar movies. Out of the 14 features that have been released so far, I’ve seen 13 of them. The only one I skipped was “Cars 2,” and that was because I found “Cars” to be so unwatchable, I stopped watching it. I actually walked out halfway through and, naturally, never reviewed it. I’ll always have a soft spot for “Toy Story,” the one that started it all, yet I still feel that “Toy Story 2,” which was initially going direct-to-video, was better, sweeter, more fun. But my favorite Pixar film remains “The Incredibles,” for too many reasons to list in a review of a different film.
To that point, alas, “Monsters University,” the prequel to the terrific 2001 film “Monsters, Inc.,” has, in some ways, disappointed me even more than “Cars.” “Monsters Inc.” was one of those breaths of fresh air that movie lovers, especially lovers of animated movies, are always waiting for. In telling the story of Mike and Sully (voices of Billy Crystal and John Goodman), two denizens of Monstropolis, we got to visit a world we’d never seen on film, an alternate universe where everyone is a hideous-looking creature, some of whom make their livings by scaring human children in the real world, and collecting the energy from their screams.
The film was funny, inventive, completely outrageous, filled with sparkling sight gags and witty, verbal jokes, and it touched viewers of every age because it was wonderfully written, acted and directed, and it came across as an original.
Having how seen “Monsters University” (all the way through, mind you) I simply can’t fathom what happened. The blame could be put on a main writer and a director who don’t have a whole lot of experience behind them, but the entire Pixar creative team had their producing fingers in this pie, and it feels second rate, like a film where folks just didn’t have their game on.
The premise is a good one. The film starts out with the frustrating childhood of little Michael, then a mini-version of the Cyclops-beach ball he would become in adulthood. Because of his diminutive size and cuteness, all of the other monsters picked on him. But he had a goal: to become a scarer at Monsters Inc. (the company and his career in that first film). The action settles in on his difficult first semester at the school of the title, where he eventually meets big blue Sully, then still called James Sullivan. The story presented is that Mike is a hard-working, ambitious student who strives to scare, but Sully is a slacker to whom scaring comes naturally. Not only are they not pals at first, they have nothing in common except a dislike for each other, along with, as the plot goes, an ongoing contest of one-upmanship between them.
But the film becomes a string of college movie clichés, and sight gags that fairly evenly either cause a laugh or fall flat. The chemistry between Crystal and Goodman is still there, and there’s a strong and nicely sinister performance from Helen Mirren as the college dean, who’s a sort of millipede with wings and sharp teeth. And, as in every Pixar film, the visuals are excellent.
It’s the story that feels tired and that, despite some neat action sequences, eventually turns into a series of too many slow spots, mired by too much repetition. That’s how I felt about it, and you can take that for what it’s worth. But I knew there was a real problem when the 6-year-old sitting behind me asked his mom for a Coke a half-hour in, then 20 minutes later told her it was OK if they went home now.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon; directed by Dan Scanlon
With Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren