Monsters University is an enjoyable film, a riff on the college comedy, borrowing liberally from “Revenge of the Nerds.” But the more I think about it, the more problems I detect with its execution. Which is maybe further proof that it’s better just to watch movies (especially summer-release movies) and not think about them.
To begin with, what age group is this made for? Tonally, it’s definitely pitched at kids – it lacks the kind of deeper resonance that has made Pixar films favorites among adults for the last decade. And I’m okay with that, these days I’m feeling like we need to let Pixar off the hook a little, and let them just make decent kids’ movies. But does “Monsters U” work as a kid’s movie? The premise of “Monsters, Inc.” felt a little difficult for children to grasp, and it’s even more so here. You need to understand that in the monster world, children’s screams are a valuable source of energy, and the monsters evoking those screams are just doing their job. But what does a first grader understand about energy production and usage? Do they really get that the TV and dishwasher and nightlight all work because of the coal plant? I doubt it. The first movie hedged this bet effectively, both by explaining it to death, and by forging a paternal bond between Sully and Boo. When watching “Monsters, Inc.,” a five year old doesn’t need to understand the dynamics of energy production in the monster world to understand who the good guys are; they see Sully cuddling Boo, and they get it. But in “Monsters University,” there’s no Boo. There’s no explanation either. The children are scarce, and when they appear, are a source of energy, and nothing else. How does that play for a five-year-old, especially one who hasn’t seen the first movie?
Serving as a prequel to “Monsters, Inc,” we get to know one-eyed, walking ping-pong ball Mike Wazowsky and intimidating-except-for-the-purple-polka-dots Jimmy Sullivan (Sully) as polar opposite students. Mike is all book knowledge and technique; he can ace a pop quiz and demonstrate zombie drooling with profiency, but can’t spook a tabby cat to save his life. Sully comes from a family of prestigious scarers, and skates on his reputation; he’s got a mighty roar and intimidating physique, but not much else.
The two are rivals until they get kicked out of scare school (for the dumbest of reasons) and must find a way to prove to the dean (Helen Mirren, onscreen as a creepy cross between a dragon and a centipede) that they have what it takes to be truly scary. The path to victory has them enlisting a fraternity of lovable losers and competing in the scare games, which bear more than a slight resemblance to the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter.
Surprisingly, “Monsters University” never deals with its biggest plot point: Mike loves scaring but just isn’t scary. Where does he fit? Everyone around him says “nowhere,” including the dean of the school, who relegates him to classes on can manufacturing. Anyone who’s seen (and remembers) the first film knows that Mike never manages to become scary. In “Monsters, Inc.,” He’s basically Sulley’s handler, but in the timeline of “Monsters U,” that job doesn’t exist. (Until the montage at the very end, when suddenly it does.)
What changed? Since Pixar movies generally try to play by the same rules as the real world, you would assume that the change didn’t happen easily. No corporation is going to employ two people to do the same job they used to get done with just one person. Mike and Sully would have had to fight hard, and demonstrate compellingly, that the handler position was necessary. There would have to be some kind of sea change in the scaring industry. This is a movie I’d like to see; it’d be a creative take on the “workplace crusader” genre. Granted, it would be hard to make it kid-friendly, but Pixar has never before shied away from a challenge (for heaven’s sake, “Wall-E” was about a lone robot stranded on a garbage suffocated planet, but they made THAT kid-friendly) but that’s not the movie that got made.
But I’ll confess, willingly, that this is just me grousing, because that’s what I do – I think, and I grouse. There’s a lot to like about “Monsters University,” but none of it is all that interesting to write about. The animation is beautiful, as it always is. There’s a lot of fun attention to detail on the college campus. The voice work is very good, and I’ll give a special shout-out to Helen Mirren, who makes Dean Hardscrabble quietly scary. The supporting characters are fun variations on old stereotypes. It’s well-paced, and never feels like it’s trying too hard. And so forth.
A lot of ink (or… pixels? what-have-you) have been spilled about the decline of Pixar, and “Monsters University” does nothing to reverse that trend. It’s about on-par with “Brave,” (not the adherence to formula in both) better than “Cars 2,” and not even approaching the four films before that. I’d say that at this point, Pixar has settled in to making perfectly adequate kids’ entertainment, similar in quality and style to DreamWorks. They’re not annoying, and they’re better crafted than most. They’re not the uncontested champs in the animation world anymore, but they’re still top tier. What’s so wrong with that?