A prequel to the 2001 film Monsters, Inc., Monsters University is one of the weaker Pixar entries in quite some time. It is architecturally awkward and creatively dull. While its ancestor had components that explored fear and the concept of how a child could be overexposed to terror, this movie has lesser intentions.
Monsters University exists to puts its characters through the paces. It aims to reveal how its two heroes met and stitches together a flaccid lesson about cooperation that even the most unsophisticated audience members will see coming, but it barely plunges the depths behind the beasts.
The picture starts with young monster Mike (Noah Johnston) going through elementary school and dreaming of being a “scarer.” 11 years later, the older Mike (Billy Crystal) heads off to Monsters University to make his dreams come true. Unfortunately, he’s not as naturally frightening as the other students and struggles with the program.
Eventually, Mike meets Sulley (John Goodman). He’s a scarier monster, but he’s having trouble with some of the finer points. After getting kicked out of their program by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), Mike and Sulley have no choice but to team up to hopefully regain a spot through the Scare Games.
The movie takes a long time to develop and doesn’t get clicking along until Mike and Sulley meet up with the Oozma Kappa fraternity. This presents the opportunity for novelty and comedy, especially as some of the frat brothers have some neat talents and backstories.
But by the time Monsters University gets to the OK fraternity, it’s spent most of its currency. It goes through too many unnecessary caverns along the way and scrambles for frivolous ways to fill time. Beyond the suggestion that Mike wasn’t popular, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to portray him in elementary school.
There is also a pile of redundant chase sequences that only seems to exist to showcase the light and camera dynamics of the animation team. While the flick is visually striking from time to time, it lacks any serious aesthetic punch apart from a few fleeting glimpses of wonder. What Monsters University winds up being, then, is embarrassingly average.
Directed by Dan Scanlon, the 2013 entry for Pixar staggers around too much to recommend. It flops through a number of plot threads and never seems ready to give up the ghost, even appending yet another moment with Hardscrabble as both characters leave school on the bus. These bits confirm that the plot is lean, but it schleps forward nevertheless.
This is Pixar’s first prequel and one has to wonder why things played out this way. The world of Monsters, Inc. had rich potential behind those doors and the monsters’ unearthing of other powers to elicit emotions was really something. Monsters University forgets that element, trading complexity for complication and burying the lead in a mountain of bland devices.
As such, it’s a disappointment. While the voice acting is up to par and the animation is on the same level as the studio’s recent yield, there’s no soul in this motion picture. It lacks heart and cohesion. It walks a hesitant, tortuous path through college life, painting a picture that feels insignificant and, worst of all, needless.