It's hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for Pixar, because for just about any other animation company a film such as Monsters University would be a rock solid accomplishment.
Pixar is not just any animation company, however, though it's hard to deny anymore that they've seen their creative juices and cinematic efforts fall back down to earth since their becoming part of the Walt Disney Co. empire. This is not to imply that there's anything particularly wrong with Disney, a distributor that certainly has a long and treasured history of providing both live-action and animated efforts targeted at the entire family. But, if we're being honest we also have to acknowledge that Pixar spent years being a notch or two above everyone else when it came to animated feature films - and that includes being a notch or two above Disney.
With recent efforts Cars 2 and Brave being mediocre and merely good respectively, Pixar really needed for Monsters University to rocket them back into the stratosphere.
It doesn't happen.
Monsters University, a prequel of sorts to their hit Monsters, Inc., is yet another "good" film. This is a film that would be a terrific accomplishment if it came from most distributors, though it would still likely be considered formulaic and not particularly inventive. From the studio who gave us such brilliant films as Up, the Toy Story films and Wall-E among others, "good" simply isn't good enough.
We know that Pixar is capable of much better.
Recipient of Heartland Truly Moving Pictures' Truly Moving Picture Award for its positive and inspiring themes, Monsters University certainly contains the usual Pixar themes about overcoming obstacles, affirming worth and unity. The biggest problem is that it's all wrapped in a simple, formulaic story that fails to impress and in disappointingly unimaginative vocal work that sounds far too much like John Goodman and Billy Crystal than it does Mike Wazowski (Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (Goodman).
Monsters University kicks off with Mike Wazowski as a young monster discovering the world of "Scarers," a profession that seems to be regarded at the top of the totem pole for the community of monsters. After a visit at the Monsters, Inc. factory, Mike decides that he will one day attend Monsters University and become the best scarer ever.
Fast forward a few years and we meet Mike as a college freshman preparing to follow his dreams by studying at Monsters University. He's a hard-working student who knows just about everything a human being can possibly know about scaring. There's one problem - he's not particularly scary. When fellow student James P. Sullivan comes along with almost no motivation but natural gifts for scaring, the stage is set for an over-the-top competition of sorts between the two.
In the promo screening I attended, it was clear that kids were completely enamored with the film and that is, after all, the film's true target audience rather than some 40+ year old film critic who sees far too many films and isn't exactly easy to impress. The young children, in particular, seemed to fully enjoy a film with lots of G-rated scares, chills and goblins. The kids, as well, won't be worried at all about the Pixar baggage nor will they be concerned with whether or not Monsters University will live up to Pixar's grand history.
They just want to be entertained and this should do the trick.
While Pixar hit a home run with Toy Story 3 and their revisit to that beloved series of films, the studio is getting far too comfy with revisiting films and retreading familiar waters. Cars 2 was almost inarguably the worst Pixar film to date, while Monsters University is something I thought I'd never say about a Pixar film - bland and safe.
The 3-D imagery is a waste here. Don't waste your hard-earned dollars as there's nothing in the film that justifies it. That said, while the film won't blow anyone away it is good enough that it should continue Pixar's long-standing history of box-office successes. Monsters, Inc. has never been my favorite Pixar film, but it is an inventive and original film that took this basic premise and fleshed out a satisfying and logical story. Monsters University, on the other hand, is basically a monster-tinged Revenge of the Nerds complete with its campus setting, outcasts, Scare Games and so many other similarities that I kept expecting Booger to show up somewhere. The film's best addition is that of Helen Mirren, whose vocal work as Dean Hardscrabble is as vibrantly fun as is her marvelously animated body.
Monsters University does look beautiful and, as is nearly always the case, Randy Newman's original music gives the film a heartfelt yet fun aura though it doesn't exactly distinguish itself from Newman's other Disney scores.
The story that unfolds in Monsters University is family friendly and pleasing even if you can easily figure out everything that's going to happen along the way. There are no awesomely bold strokes like the opening scene of Up or the numerous scenes in Wall-E that simply took your breath away. Instead, this is simply a good animated film from a studio that is capable of so much more than good.
Eventually, the Academy will stop handing Pixar nominations on reputation alone and films like Monsters University, Brave and Cars 2 will be recognized for being merely good films while the awards will deservedly be handed out to the far more remarkable achievements that seem to get left behind.
Or, perhaps, Pixar will find a way to restore their reputation and, even more importantly, return to producing the hands-down best animated features around.
Finding Nemo 2? Here's your chance, Pixar. Let's see what you can do.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic