The biggest surprise in Monsters University, a prequel to 2001’s beloved Monsters, Inc., is that the movie bears the Pixar stamp on it. Technically, the picture is a marvel, of course: No other studio today makes better-looking computer-animated films or pays such close attention to the tiniest of details (I loved the way one of the characters, an amiable octopus creature, is always having trouble with his suction cups). But creatively, the film is a slog, the story of how the blue-furred Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and the one-eyed Mike (Billy Crystal) went from rivals to best friends while studying how to be scary at college.
Monsters, Inc. was directed by Pete Docter, one of the brightest stars in Pixar’s stable (he directed Up and wrote WALL-E). Monsters University marks the debut of Dan Scanlon, whose main previous Pixar credit is helping out with the screenplay for Cars and whose direction here feels like the work of an intern or understudy. He doesn’t yet know how to make scenes snap, how to generate the sort of excitement almost all Pixar movies do or how to disguise the fact that this movie has been made to fill in the gap between Pixar originals (they have new films coming in 2014 and 2015). This feels like a straight-to-video job that was sent to theaters instead because why not?
Part of the fun of Monsters Inc. was discovering the movie’s universe — how monsters worked, the rules they had to follow, the different ways they invented to scare children. In Monsters University, all that stuff is old hat, so we get frathouse competitions and stern headmasters and college antics and the uncool kids learning to become popular (it’s a lot like Revenge of the Nerds, only squeaky clean). This is sleep-inducing stuff — not quite as bad as Cars 2, Pixar’s nadir, but close — although kiddie audiences will no doubt be delighted by the bright colors, crazy characters and the scholarly setting.
The movie also delivers a curious message for children: Drop out of college and try your luck in the work force, and you will succeed. I understand Hollywood is a business, and you have to keep cash coming in if you want to make truly great movies like last year’s Brave. But Monsters University feels half-hearted and lazy, like they weren’t even trying. At least show a little effort, guys.
Voices: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza.
Director: Dan Scanlon.
Screenwriters: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon.
Producer: Kari Rae.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. No offensive material. Playing at area theaters.