Monsters University: Good Pixar or Bad Pixar?

06/19/2013 4:00 AM |

Monsters University

Directed by Dan Scanlon

Until the Cars movies blasted Pixar’s batting average to smithereens, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. was the anomaly in the company’s catalogue—a movie more interested in entertainment than thematic depth. It was colorful and exciting, with endearing characters, but nothing that approached the meditations on loss in Up or the bold anit-consumerism in Wall-E. So a belated prequel, Monsters University, seemed like watering down an already thin soup, confirming the cynical view that Pixar had shifted its focus from originality to money-grubbing franchises. But University isn’t that—not quite. It’s a return to form after the flawed Brave and atrocious Cars 2; fun, yes, but thoughtful about its themes when it’s not busy with everything else. The problem is how much “everything else” there is, with plot lines and conflicts that go on way too long, even if they mask that by being entertaining in the moment.

Yes, Inc.’s Mike and Sully are college-bound and majoring in scaring, which you may remember serves as a form of generating power in the monster world. Mike (voiced again by Billy Crystal) crams nonstop while Sully (ditto John Goodman), the hot monster on campus, coasts on a natural ability he’s never bothered to challenge or develop. While it doesn’t drive the story until the end, the movie’s resonance comes from the fact that Mike simply isn’t scary, meaning that no matter how hard he works, his dreams will forever be out of reach.

University at first seems to expand on Ratatouille’s welcoming philosophy—that talent can come from anywhere and appearances don’t dictate ability—but then makes a sobering point about accepting one’s limitations. The Incredibles argued that not everyone is a superhero; University adds that you’re likely not one of them. It’s hardly surprising that a supporting character is a middle-aged victim of downsizing. (You know, for kids!) When University deals with that pathos, it feels like the old Pixar, full of heart and predictably stunning animation. But too much revolves around standard-issue college plots like a crusty old dean and competition with a jerky frat. As in the human world, where our heroes get stranded for a too-short sequence, it’s a waste of University to spend it partying.

Opens June 21