For the sake of fairness, let’s spot Pixar the unasked-for existence of Monsters University in the wake of two projects that both suffered from the studio’s inevitable bastardization at the hands of Disney. For though the original film did not have the emotional depth or profundity of its three Pixar predecessors, Monsters, Inc. remains the richest, most original world that the animation studio has devised for one of their films.
That world’s premise remains more or less the same in University: in the world of monsters, electricity is generated by producing doors to the human world, sneaking into children’s bedrooms at night, and frightening them to produce “scare power.” The resolutely un-scary bookworm Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and cocky James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) both aim for a career in the Monsters Incorporated Scarer Team, and so in this prequel they attend a university “scare program.”
The new setting of this prequel — unlike its predecessor — is more interested in transmuting the rules of its world into the cliches of our own than in logically developing them for the sake of its own story. Mike and Sully meet for the first time, and at first, they are enemies. When they are removed from the scare program, Mike enters the two of them — along with a tiny fraternity of dorky misfits — into the University Scare Games, where victory will see them reinstated in the program.
The plot that follows — Mike and Sully learn to work as a team, and the misfit underdogs make surprising waves in the competition — is satisfyingly accomplished and has its fair share of laughs, but it’s hard to shake its formula and lack of a real emotional core.
None of the leads’ personal hangups (Sullivan’s family name, Mike’s fundamentally unscary appearance) is ever given personal weight or clear development , and so when in the final act they’re made the crux of plot points, there’s no genuine emotional connection. The character arcs (and the entire cast of secondary characters) feel as though they’ve been constructed around the plot instead of organically integrated into it.
My impression of the film was not so nearly as negative as it may seem, but one can only go so far in commending fair and polished storytelling, which Monsters University certainly is: it’s an incredible leap forward in environmental lighting, and each story beat leads smoothly into the next.
It has virtually no moments of out and out failure (save for a denouement that awkwardly flubs the bridge between University and Inc). But there’s a distinct lack of the risk-taking that used to be Pixar’s MO. Monsters University avoids missteps, but that’s not so hard when you’re taking baby steps instead of monster leaps.