Warmed-Over "Monsters University" Has Its Charms

If “Monsters University” were a Scantron test, it would be a haphazard sea of filled-in bubbles, churned out by a student smart enough to show up for the test but too disinterested to put forth much effort. Like a random assemblage of pencil marks is prone to do, “Monsters University” gets some things right – particularly in its third act. But it’s one of Disney•Pixar’s more listless efforts to date, a transparent attempt at rekindling a 12 year-old merchandising juggernaut that didn’t exactly scream out for continued adventures. But here we are, looking in on the college years of our two favorite animated monsters.

Seeing Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) again feels less like reuniting with old friends and more like looking through never-before-seen yearbook photos. As “Monsters University” is a prequel, everything the duo learned in “Monsters, Inc.” doesn’t come into play here, and the results are predictably disorienting. The opening scene – one of the film’s highlights – depicts Mike as an oft-bullied youngling, visiting Monsters, Inc. on a field trip. It’s here that he finds the inspiration to become a scarer, and quickly he’s 17 years old, stepping onto the campus of Monsters University for the first time.

The excitement of seeing younger versions of these characters (including Steve Buscemi’s Randall Boggs) soon wears off, and it becomes clear that the rest of the narrative will consist of little more than riffs on college life. Sulley is the gifted but unmotivated scarer, riding the coattails of his famous father, while Mike has the brains and the passion but lacks the scariness to advance through the scaring program. Inevitably the two clash, only to band together with the misfits that make up the Oozma Kappa fraternity (voiced by Charlie Day, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, and others) to win the annual Scare Games.

Another new character, the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), has a central role in all of this, seeing Mike and Sulley as nothing more than their weaknesses and unworthy of Monsters University. She agrees to let Oozma Kappa stay in school in the unlikely event that they win the Scare Games (the muscular Roar Omega Roar is the heavy favorite), but if they lose, they’ll be expelled. What follows is a seemingly arbitrary sequence of contests in which the last place team is always eliminated. While the picture is startlingly short on laughs, it’s these scenes that are the guiltiest of padding the running time, adding little more than an excuse for scatterbrained action sequences.

Thankfully, the screenwriters throw a wrench into the final contest that finally makes the film about something, giving some desperately needed heft to the remainder of the film. When the climax finds Mike and Sulley trapped in the human world, the merits of the filmmakers’ approach begin to break through. It’s too late to redeem the entire picture, but it comes close enough to scratching that classic Pixar itch that the preceding flaws start to fade away.

One’s impression of “Monsters University” is sure to be informed by his or her expectations, but since audiences have come to expect so much from Disney•Pixar, their track record should work against them in this case. And while “Monsters University” is closer to their lowest point (“Cars 2”) than their highest (“Toy Story”), it’s breezy and charming enough to warrant a viewing – especially for younger audiences. But that its funniest gag isn’t paid off until a post-credit scene doesn’t say much for the amount of thought that went into the film, ultimately leaving it as one of Pixar’s least adult-friendly movies to date.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 21, 2013
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Director: Dan Scanlon
Screenwriter: Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Dave Foley, Sean P. Hayes, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger
MPAA Rating: G