When they’ve been as great for as long as they have, seeing Pixar be merely good can feel like a disappointment. The first hiccup came with Cars, but that was quickly forgotten in the rapturous wake of Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. Cars 2, the sequel nobody seemed to want but John Lasseter and Disney’s merchandising department, came next, followed by Brave, which divided a lot of people even if it did manage to win the Oscar (and which I still liked a great deal). All of these films made money, but the bloom definitely seemed off the rose. Now comes Monsters University, a prequel to a film that didn’t exactly leave a lot of questions unanswered. And while many were hoping for a return to greatness, it’s, well, merely good.
Which is to say I’d rather watch this again before I’d watch a Madagascar or Ice Age sequel. But I’d also rather watch Monsters, Inc. again. And you can’t help but be reminded of that earlier film when watching Monsters University, since it’s essentially that film’s origin story. We see Mike and Sully first as rivals, then grudging partners, then finally fast friends. We see the roots of their competition with Randall. And there are plenty of nods to characters and situations from the first film. Thing is, was anybody really dying to know all this? Did Monsters, Inc. somehow feel incomplete without filling in the blanks? Especially when those blanks are filled in a pretty standard manner familiar to anybody who’s ever seen Revenge of the Nerds, with outcasts banding together to show up the popular kids. It’s certainly charming, due in large part to Pixar’s usual flair and the talents of Billy Crystal and John Goodman, but it all feels a bit unnecessary. We know nothing is going to stop Mike and Sully from becoming friends and ending up working for Monsters, Inc., so there’s not an awful lot at stake here. So no matter how entertaining it is, the emotional investment that made the first film work so wonderfully just isn’t that strong. And there’s nothing even approaching the relationship between Sully and Boo, or the dazzling door chase.
But merely good Pixar is still good Pixar, and that’s saying something. Monsters University has its share of laughs, mostly thanks to the motley crew Mike and Sully find themselves allied with. Charlie Day shines in particular as the hairy, hippie Art, reminiscent of an old school Muppet monster with his shaggy weirdness. It’s a character and attitude the film could have used more of, a dash of trippy anarchy that’s perfectly suited to the college setting. The quality of the animation is as good as it’s ever been, and they’ve even managed to top the amazing design of Henry J. Waternoose from the first film with Dean Hardscrabble. A jet-black combination of dragon and millipede and given a stern presence by Helen Mirren, she’s a striking character, even if she does have the somewhat thankless role of the inflexible authority figure eventually proven wrong in the end. And you can’t help but respond to the underdogs holding their own in the university’s Scare Games (basically the Greek Games from Revenge of the Nerds, with much the same stakes and outcome), especially given the lively, slapstick nature of the contest. It’s all bright and entertaining, it just never finds that next gear Pixar could so reliably find in the past.
All this makes the short that precedes the film, The Blue Umbrella, all the more striking. It’s damn near photorealistic, looking for all intents and purposes like live action in the beginning. It absolutely drips with charm and whimsy, as we watch a city street happily come to life in a rainstorm, including two umbrellas who immediately hit it off. It’s got more heart in its six minutes than Monsters University has in its one hundred, and serves as a dazzling reminder of just what Pixar is capable of.
Pixar’s upcoming slate looks to be a little more original, aside from Finding Dory scheduled for 2015 (and if there’s a film that need a follow-up even less than Monsters, Inc., it’s Finding Nemo). Only time will tell if The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, and the planned Día de los Muertos film will mark a renaissance for Pixar, or merely continue the competently entertaining rut they seem to be stuck in. Plenty of studios would love to be in a similar rut, but for Pixar, it feels like treading water. High-quality treading, to be sure, but it’s still not getting them anywhere.