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Monsters University is B Average Work from an Honor Roll Student
Pixar’s latest is enjoyable enough, but where has the studio’s originality gone?



In my review earlier this year for Oz the Great and Powerful (also released by Disney, incidentally) I noted the limitations inherent in the virulent strain of prequelitis currently running amok in our nation’s multiplexes; namely that the film’s end point being predetermined by where we pick up with these characters in the previous film coats the proceedings in a thick sheen of inevitability. We’ve grown to accept this lazy form of storytelling from our summer tent poles, but to see Pixar Studios indulge in it proves disappointing. Which isn’t to say Monsters University is bad in any way, in fact far from it; it’s a gorgeously rendered trip down memory lane with the same strong sense of its main characters as Monsters Inc., packing more gags into its running time than any previous Pixar entry.  But one can’t escape the sense that Pixar is slumming it with this release, coasting on the goodwill generated by previous work instead of earning it with the film at hand. The result is something like watching a baseball star known for his towering home runs awkwardly leg out an infield single – a net-positive result to be sure, but slightly disappointing.

Where the first film was centered on James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) and his journey of discovery, this film uses Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski as it’s jumping off point. We see him fall in love with the Scarer profession from a young age and watch him set his sights on the prestigious Monsters University as the means by which to achieve his career goal. It’s here on campus that he meets a young Sulley, and while they butt heads at first (Mike’s academic leaning creates friction with Sulley’s more laissez-faire approach to scaring), they’ll need to learn to rely on one another in order to achieve their ultimate goal of becoming world-class scarers.

The world Pixar created in Monsters Inc. proves fertile ground for exploration in this prequel, allowing for a wider array of creatures and sight gags that expand the universe even further beyond the already rich tapestry previously created. And once again Goodman and Crystal play off of one another magnificently, managing to make their chemistry readily apparent even when our main characters are at odds with one another. Once the plot kicks into high gear it’s a very generic slobs versus snobs template at play, but Pixar’s storytelling faculties are so assured and fine-tuned that you allow yourself to get swept up in the conventions all the same. The film even manages to subvert your expectations at numerous turns, with a final plot resolution that is slightly surprising, but thoroughly Pixarian. The animation is as lush as ever, creating a rich environment populated with unique characters that I’ll be overjoyed to pore over in detail once the movie’s DVD is released. And as already stated, the film might be the funniest that Pixar has ever released; by having our characters previously established and the plot rather basic, it allows them to unleash a flurry of sight gags (stay through the credits!) and character bits that make the time race by.

Still, it’s disconcerting how Pixar seems content to sit still while the rest of the animation world catches up to them. Last year’s Brave was an admirable attempt at melding the worlds of Pixar and Disney together, but the era in which Pixar made masterpiece after masterpiece seems to be getting further and further away from us (while efforts like How to Train Your Dragon and ParaNorman prove that the quality gap is ever-lessening). The next few years look to bring them back towards the original material that their reputation was built on, so we’ll have to wait and see if they manage to regain their former glory. But if work as entertaining as Monsters University is the end result of their slow crawl towards the mean, it’s hard to maintain any disappointment in the face of such boundless computer animated enthusiasm.

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