With the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Sean Hayes. Written by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Rated G. 110 minutes.
When you’re the very best–and Pixar is the very best in contemporary American animated films–you still can’t expect to hit a home run every time. Pixar’s record is impressive for the number of times they have done so, and even their films that are less than perfect, like “A Bug’s Life” and last year’s “Brave” are still worth seeing. Only the horrid “Cars” and the even worse “Cars 2” (both of which were financially successful) were out-and-out disappointments.
Which brings us to this summer’s MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, a prequel to one of their crown jewels, 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” Here’s the short review: it’s a lot of fun, but let’s hope they don’t do a third one. Unlike the “Toy Story” trilogy, this is not a film that deepens our understanding of the characters, but instead just puts them through the motions again. It’s undeniably entertaining, but the result is more like reheated leftovers than a new dish.
We start with Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) as a little, um, monster. He wants to grow up and be a big scarer, but he’s just a little green ball with arms, legs, a mouth, and one eye. He has an adventure during a school field trip that convinces him he is on the road to glory… a road which goes through Monsters University. There he meets James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), a giant, Muppety, horned monster who comes from a long line of famous monsters and has been coasting on that, as well as Randy (Steve Buscemi), who will be a future nemesis.
Although there are winks and nods towards the earlier film, this is years before the little human girl Boo is even born, so she doesn’t figure in the story. Instead it’s about how Mike is kicked out of the scaring program. Now he’s fighting for the chance to get back in by leading his fraternity to victory in the Scare Games. Of course, the odds are against him. He’s stuck in the loser frat with a bunch of misfit monsters while Sully has pledged to the top dogs–until his low grades start working against him.
The various competitions are amusing, as are Mike’s confrontations with the monstrous Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who doesn’t see Mike as monster material as all. The story doesn’t turn out quite as you might expect and there are numerous spoofs on aspects of college life, such as what happens to people who aren’t quiet in the library. Since this is a prequel, we know where Mike and Sully end up even if we may be surprised how they got there. (And stick around for a final gag after the credits.)
As fun as it all is, the character development is a bit too pat. In the first film we were surprised by how Mike and Sully reacted to the little girl who crosses over given how the monsters thing human children are toxic, and by the cleverness of such things as a fancy restaurant named for the late, great special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Here they don’t quite earn it, so that when the film ends where “Monsters, Inc.” begins, it’s more because that’s where the story was supposed to go rather than a satisfying outcome.
If this review seems a little down on the film, don’t take it to heart. You’ll laugh at “Monsters University” and have a good time. However, the “Toy Story” films may be the exception to the rule: Pixar does best with original stories, not trying to create franchises.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.