Monsters University (2013) spends a considerable amount of time calling back images, gags, and plot points of its originator Monsters, Inc. (2001) (review). There’s a The Right Stuff (1983) bit, Randall the camouflager gets his motivation, and some of the mythology is established for our main heroes. What Monsters University lacks, like many young creatures that go to college, is true self-reliance. I saw some pretty young monsters in the audience who couldn’t have seen Monsters, Inc. in theaters and they were loving it, so perhaps I was just that guy who always thinks they mangled that book adaptation–as I am whenever there’s a book adaptation on offer. Monsters University is firmly in the shadow of its predecessor in ambition, originality, and cleverness. However, like many things in the shadows of other things, it should not be thought the worse for not being great.
A young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. and you can tell this isn’t the first time he can’t find a buddy to hold hands with. He’s wholly forgettable to his peers. They just see this one-eyed beach ball as utterly un-scary. But Mike knows the minute he sets foot on the Scare Floor, that this is where he wants to be. One friendly scarer tells him that he got his training at Monsters University, clearly the flagship to Fear Tech’s “the other school”. After a death-defying trip into the human world, Mike returns unscathed to the amazement of the professionals. His plan is set. Flash forward to his first day at MU where he meets his roommate Randy (Steve Buscemi) and takes his first class in Scaring 101. He quickly gets the measure of the social dynamic in the student activities fair where there’s one elite fraternity, Roar Omega Roar, and then everyone else.
Also in the freshman class is James Sullivan (John Goodman), son of the famous Scarer Bill Sullivan, who is just obviously born for scaring. He’s got a roar as massive as his frame. But his natural abilities only makes him lazy and unwilling to consider other methods of scream-inducement. This makes him a natural enemy for Mike, Sullivan’s opposite in all respects. Mike studies his tail off all through the semester for that final exam. That’s when things go wrong. Mike and Sullivan get into a scare-off that leads to damaging Dean Hardscrabble’s (Helen Mirren) record-winning scare container and an ad hoc examination that, unsurprisingly, they do not pass. That leaves the Scare Games as Mike and Sulley’s only hope to get back into the Scare Program and accomplish their dreams.
Monsters University suffers from a severe case of cliche syndrome. The screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and (director) Dan Scanlon is littered with predictability with a peppering of conscious course-correction. The first scene of walking through the various college clubs is virtually identical to the one in Pitch Perfect (2012) in that it sets up the core device of the film. Because, after all, coming up with an array of classes and social dynamics to carry a plot for two hours is a lot harder than a single competition where the unambitious, nerdy underdog fraternity must overcome the established, entitled fraternity with its myopic views on monster value. Add that to a central foes-turning-friends dynamic and we’ve got ourselves a coming-of-age drama endorsing the value of hard work, team values, and inclusiveness.
It’s still good, obviously. These cliches allow for monster-style translations that make the experience funny. Pixar hasn’t lost the ability to animate. Though, that said, I did feel like the monsters bore little familial relation to the monsters of Monsters, Inc. like they were more muppet-like than before. One character, Art (Charlie Day), is especially muppety in appearance while also being the single funniest part of the movie. This is a genre movie unlike anything Pixar has ever created and there is no genre like the college movie genre that is simultaneously derivative and entertaining. You’ll have a better time at Monsters University than…checking…at anything else in theaters. As always, Pixar makes you happy.
If I’m going to recommend seeing this movie, and I wholeheartedly do, I want to wag my finger at Pixar for a moment. Pixar has the capacity to make great movies. Other than a few vacuous cash cows along the way, their credits are unbelievable in quality. Unlike any of the other Pixar movies I’ve seen, this one has the least to say about anything. Their themes and messages are usually superb and immaculately communicated. Monsters University felt cheap and easy in large part because these college movies have staked out the same ground dozens of times. But worst, worst, worst of all, this is the first Pixar movie where I felt like there was half a movie for the kids and half a movie for the adults. Little pieces of sexually awkward humor that give the parents a giggle while the kids enjoy all the weird monsters. Watch out, Pixar. Watch out.