For all the marvels that Pixar is still able to dazzle viewers with via computer animated images, one can’t help but note a tone of creeping dread entering into the hearts of even the most ardent fans. The film company feels like it’s settling into a narrative groove that, no matter how much they rake in at the box office, isn’t doing them any critical favors. Their last three movies have been a second sequel to their already established classic Toy Story, a sequel to another of their films that felt like a leaden excuse for more merchandising opportunities (Cars 2), and a fine but rather traditional story of a princess (Brave) that Pixar’s parent company Disney has told a dozen times over. And with this prequel to another of the company’s raging successes, one has to wonder if the drive to tell original stories for John Lasseter and co. got lost under the piles of money on their desks.
Monsters University — a look into the college years of the nebbish one-eyed blob Mike Wazowski and his fuzzy friend Sulley — certainly isn’t helping Pixar to break new ground. The animators continue to simply improve upon the delights that they’ve goggled us with thus far. The campus of the titular college is riddled with an impressive array of monsters, and Mike and Sulley’s fraternity brothers are an adorable bunch — particularly the appropriately named Squishy (voiced by animator Peter Sohn) and the furry space cadet Art (It’s Always Sunny’s Charlie Day in full freak show mode) — with impressive tactile looking details. And there to give small children nightmares is Dean Hardscrabble, a flying dragon/millipede/trilobite hybrid given added creepiness by Helen Mirren’s surly vocal performance.
The plot, however, does nothing more than drag out some of the dustiest cliches of school-centric films. Mike and Sulley get kicked out of the scaring program and attempt to return by taking part in an all-fraternity Greek Games-style event à la Revenge of the Nerds or Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Sure, the contests cooked up as part of these games may involve glowing sea urchins that make the monsters’ bodies puff up like a fat lip, but we’ve still been through all these motions before.
As with the first Monsters movie, the charm of the leads helps keep things afloat. Billy Crystal and John Goodman have a fine repartee throughout, especially when their characters bump heads and egos as part of their early love/hate relationship. It helps having the challenge of portraying the two in their younger years. Both have to pitch their voices up a little higher and are forced to attack the dialog from a different angle as a result. Kudos again to the visual designers of the film for giving subtle changes to the characters to convey their youth (Mike Wazowski is splattered with a bit of yellow to give the impression of a still ripening pear).
For fans of Pixar still waiting for the company to reinvigorate the genre of computer animated film to the level that Disney did with last year’s Wreck-It Ralph, there’s hope on the horizon. Their list of in-production films may include a Finding Nemo sequel (and rumors abound of a fourth Toy Story), but also boasts a few tales that sound daring and completely original. Until then, there’s this well-worn, comfortable, and unoriginal tale.