Film Grade: B
Twelve years have passed since Monsters, Inc. was released, which left Pixar in a particular position when it came to a follow up. With over a decade between the first and the sequel, the animation studio couldn’t rely on the buzz of a quickly built franchise (like Cars), or even bank on the same audience buying tickets. In many ways, they were starting from scratch and free to explore bold new monster adventures. The choice, then, to follow Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) in their college years was promising. In taking the prequel route, the filmmakers at Pixar gave themselves the chance to build something new from the blueprints of the original. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Monsters University is a victim of Pixar’s own success, not living up to the high story standards the studio is known for.
We begin with little tyke Mike on a school fieldtrip to the Monsters, Inc. factory, the place where monsters cross into the human realm to spook children, harnessing their screams for power. He knows this is his calling and that Monsters University is the place to get him there. Jump ahead several years later to the first day of classes, where Mike is underdog as a scare major, the most elite program at MU. He finds a rival in a brash and purple fuzzy creature, Sully. While Mike hits the books, trying to make up for what he lacks in size with theoretical knowledge, Sully uses his physical stature and family name to get some scaring done. Their competitiveness gets them booted out of the program, so they sign up for the campus Scare Games, making a deal with Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren) that if they win they’re back in as scare majors.
As is to be expected from Pixar, Monsters University is visually impressive. The vibrant colour palette of the—ironically and purposefully—not scary monsters remains. (In an homage to Carrie, Mike and his team of misfits are doused in cotton candy paint and sparkles as a means of humiliation.) Set against the backdrop of the realistic-looking university, the creatures seem all the more fantastic, as they play football, ping-pong, and pull all-nighters. The joke of the abnormal creatures acting like normal students, however, soon wears thin, as the film relies too heavily on the college comedy genre (with several nods to Animal House) as opposed to doing anything fresh with it.
The Scare Games premise gave the Pixar animators a chance to stretch their legs, and they do not disappoint, creating lively and imaginative sequences. (The best involves a massive librarian slug.) But this choice also fragments the film. Though this is supposed to be the great bromance story of Mike and Sully, their origin story never fully comes together. The fact that this is merely a series of short vignettes strung together to make a feature is only highlighted as the film drags on for nearly two hours, struggling to keep its emotional depth alive (to say nothing of holding the attention of its target younger demographic).
Mike and Sully hardly earn a failing grade, but a middling “B” should send them back to the books.