Pixar is back with an animated creature prequel
Monsters University sets one of Pixar’s recurring themes, the triumph of an outsider over all hurdles and adversities, in a spoofing cartoon of Hollywood campus comedies. The gothic halls of the university are at the top of the Ivy League in this parallel universe where the boogeymen of our childhood live and learn. The protagonist, Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), is a three-toed, one-eyed green Nerf ball of a creature that could never find a friend in grade school. Now that he has gained admission to the college of his dreams, he’s shunned by the cool kids and curtly dismissed by the administration, led by a supercilious centipede with bat wings, Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). Driven to succeed and glued to the books, Mike makes half of an odd couple with a ne’er-do-well heritage student, James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a fuzzy blue and purple bear content to slide through life on a C-minus average.
Coming from opposite sides of the monster spectrum, they’re hardly fast friends but are lumped together by circumstances. Expelled from the prestigious Scare Program, they can only regain their standing by being on the winning team of the college’s annual tournament of fear, the Scare Games. As they are excluded from the top Greek society, Roar Omega Roar, they must make do with the lowest fraternity, Oozma Kappa, where hot cocoa is the preferred libation at the frat house.
The occasional kinetic spectacles (not particularly enhanced by being in 3D) will keep the kids entertained, but adults might be a little disappointed. Pixar created the greatest animated features of the ’90s and ’00s—the happy marriage of great screenwriting and technological breakthrough consummated in Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up and WALL•E. They set themselves a high bar, which they have not met in recent films since becoming part of the Disney empire. Monsters University is good family fun, an entertaining diversion but lacking the surprise and emotional resonance of Pixar’s best. Here’s hoping the studio’s 2014 release, The Good Dinosaur, will climb back to previous heights.