After the middling efforts of Cars 2 and Brave, there is an emerging consensus that Pixar, the gold standard in “ahhh”-dropping CGI children’s entertainment (Toy Story, Wall•E, Up), may no longer be the esteemed animation atelier it once was. Monsters University, a “prequel” to 2001’s Monsters Inc., conforms to this apparent drift toward the average, with toy sales taking priority over originality. The background designs are beautiful and there are plenty of lively sight gags, but magic isn’t in the cards.
The premise of Monsters Inc. was that a city of monsters existed on the other side of children’s bedroom closets with dedicated “scarers” venturing into kids’ bedrooms to harvest screams, which fuelled the monster city, until a two-year-old girl crossed into Monstropolis and changed the human-monster balance. Featuring a couple of Flintstones-like working-class buddies – the quick-talking Mike (Billy Crystal) and the big-hearted Sulley (John Goodman) – the fourth Pixar movie was the company’s first outright comedy, and one of its biggest commercial successes.
The new movie (Pixar’s 14th) takes us back to when Mike and Sulley were in their fresh-monster year, not as friends but as campus rivals. Seeing them again, the first thing that strikes you is that the characters aren’t really monsters but endearingly tacky misfit toys: Mike is an acid-green Nerf ball with spindly limbs and a solitary eye, while Sulley, a teal-and-purple ogre, resembles a novelty duster.
We start with a pea-sized Mike (wearing braces) on a middle-school field trip to the Monsters Inc. plant, where the top scarers are as idolized as pro athletes. After an unauthorized trip crossing the monster-human divide, he resolves to attend Monsters University and its elite School for Scaring program, no matter how cute and harmless the world thinks he is.
From there on, there are a few minor narrative twists but no real surprises. The Pixar writing team (Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird and director Dan Scanlon) have fashioned a college high-jinks movie in the Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds line, without the locker-room bits. The campus itself, a mixture of green parks and Gothic architecture, is lovely, and the imperious Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), a kind of centipede crossed with a bat with a human face, gives them a scary role model to aspire to.
While Mike hits the books to learn every child-scaring behaviour, he soon becomes the enemy of James P. (Sulley) Sullivan, a hard-partying lout who relies on his natural intimidating roar and famous father to get an easy ride. When their escalating rivalry gets them both thrown out of the program, they end up joining the outcast Oozma Kappa fraternity, where if they sign up for the annual “scare games,” they have a chance to win back their academic spots.
Some mild amusement is offered by their athletically inept and hopelessly unscary fraternity brothers, who include a middle-aged salesman named Don, a spacey red furry thing named Art that looks like an airplane neck support, a five-eyed character named Squishy and two heads that share a body and argue with each other. Naturally, they’re overwhelming underdogs for their rivals, including a snooty jock fraternity with a condescending leader (Nathan Fillion), or a pack of three-eyed, barracuda-teethed sorority sisters.
The fact that there are no significant female characters in Monsters University, particularly post-Brave, feels jarring. Also notable is a change in tone: Monsters Inc. presented a typically Pixar, self-contained original world. Monsters University, by contrast, is padded with pop-culture references, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to the teen horror classic Carrie, giving it a second-hand quality.
Monsters University is accompanied by a short, finely textured animated film, The Blue Umbrella, by Pixar’s Saschka Unseld, about two lost umbrellas in the rain. Unlike Monsters University, it captures the wonder effect that was Pixar’s original genius.