Success can be a movie studio’s own worst enemy. The quality of the majority of Pixar’s films have been such that any deviation from that norm is considered to be disappointing, even if the substandard film outshines most other animated offerings.
After delivering a great finale to the Toy Story trilogy, Pixar is in a bit of slump after the horrendous Cars 2 and the so-so Brave. To try to break out, Pixar is going back to the well of familiar characters with Monsters University, marking the first prequel in its history.
Aside from maybe The Incredibles, it’s hard to think of another Pixar film that better deserved the prequel treatment than Monsters, Inc. The opportunity to see how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) met and acted in college is darn near irresistible.
Monsters University doesn’t reach the heights of Pixar’s classics, but it’s a vast improvement over its previous two offerings.
The set-up is great too. Mike dreams his entire life — footage of him as a kid is priceless — of going to Monsters University and becoming a full-fledged scarer. Once he gets there, though, he finds out that desire and ability may not exactly be the same thing, especially when there are truly scary monsters like Sully in his way.
The filmmakers do a lot of things right, including playing just enough on character nostalgia so as to make things familiar, but not so much that they’re just repeating themselves. There are also a number of clever twists on the college experience from the monster perspective, including dorm life, fraternities and sports.
On the down side, though, the main thrust of the film is a timeworn plot that’s all the less fresh for how much it’s been used lately. Mike and Sully are forced to team up with a fraternity filled with outcasts and misfits in order to prove their worth. Each of the members has their individual charms, but that doesn’t hide the rote nature of their presence.
Still, there’s just something special about being back in the world of scaring, and seeing how the combative nature of Mike and Sully’s friendship evolves never fails to entertain. That’s mostly thanks to the voice talents of Crystal and Goodman, who both know their way around a good joke.
New additions such as Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble, Sean Hayes and Dave Foley as twins sharing the same body, and Nathan Fillion as the head of a rival fraternity keep the movie popping. And callbacks to characters like Randy (Steve Buscemi), Roz (Bob Peterson) and Henry J. Waternoose are executed flawlessly.
Monsters University doesn’t reach the heights of Pixar’s classics, but it’s a vast improvement over its previous two offerings. And fans of original storytelling will be glad to know that Pixar’s next two films – The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out – are all new.