There has been a sense of concern among many about Pixar over the last few years: one that I don't particularly share. Last year's Brave was, I felt, a masterpiece: a visually dazzling and emotionally resonant feminist reinvention of the fairy tale that didn't (and still doesn't) get the respect it deserves. I wish I could say similarly good things about Monsters University, but one of the most positive I can muster is simply that it's merely not atrocious, and that I doubt it represents anything more than an isolated misstep. The best example of why I feel that way—in addition to the studio's track record, of course—is the short that precedes it: The Blue Umbrella, a story of love between two umbrellas that becomes profoundly universal by the end. It's a remarkable piece of work, splendidly brought to life and reminiscent of WALL-E in its emotional tone and effortless charm. And it demonstrates that Pixar still knows what it's doing.
Sadly, it also has more humor and heart than the entirety of this enormously dull prequel. Forget Brave or Toy Story level greatness (let alone Finding Nemo quality). Monsters University doesn't even qualify as a even a moderately enjoyable diversion. There are occasional moments of cleverness to be found here: mostly little jokes like the different campus organizations Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) passes on his first day there. But the narrative itself is exceedingly by the numbers both in concept and execution, hitting familiar beat after familiar beat until the last 20 minutes or so, when a few semi-surprising plot turns and effective emotional moments arrive too late to really redeem it.
Monsters University centers on Mike's time at the university, where he's seeking to earn a degree in scaring. He is not a natural-born scarer, but is a hard worker who dreams of becoming one. This leads him into a rivalry with Sulley (John Goodman), who when we meet him is an exceedingly cocky individual, so certain of his natural talents that he doesn't even bother studying. Eventually, after getting into a fight, they find themselves expelled by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). Their only way back in is through entering and winning the Scare Games, a competition involving various fraternities and sororities on campus. To do so, they're forced to team up and join Oozma Kappa, a small fraternity of monsters who are about the least scary group you're likely to see.
Right away, all of this seems familiar: two polar opposites required to work together, a small group of individuals lacking much self-confidence, and a series of obstacles they need to surmount. And so it is. From there, Monsters University delivers one routine narrative development after another: an initial couple of events where Mike and Sulley's selfishness nearly cost them dearly, their gradual realization that they need to work together, Mike's continual blindness towards the fact that he might just not be cut out for a career as a scarer, and so on. Without giving anything away, it's a story we've seen a million times, told with none of the invention, inspiration, or emotional depth we're used to seeing from Pixar. Friendship: yay. Teamwork: yay. Figuring out your place in the world: yay. That's the extent of this movie's themes.
Humor would go a long way towards making that less of an issue, but Monsters University is largely lacking in that department as well. Maybe one joke out of every four works, something that can likely be attributed to the fact that many of the jokes stem from the idea that having monsters do various college things (initiate new members into a fraternity, steal a rival school's mascot, etc.) is funny in and of itself. It isn't, and as a result the film arguably comes up even shorter in the laughs department than the emotional one, which is saying a lot.
Also not helping matters is that this is one of Pixar's least visually interesting works to date. It doesn't look bad: the university is well-rendered and the imagery consistently eye-catching. But outside of a beautiful late shot of two characters looking at a moon, the animated compositions never come close to matching the visual majesty of a Brave or a WALL-E. In most frames they can't even match Cars, which (while a perfectly enjoyable movie, and considerably better than this) was by no means a stylistic masterpiece. The framings and animation are both simply competent rather than transcendent: the kind that could have been done by any animation studio with a solid budget.
I want to stress that this is far more than just a lesser effort from Pixar. Monsters University is just a lackluster film, plain and simple. It's not badly crafted on a technical level (the voice acting is unsurprisingly superb), but on every other level it doesn't just merely fall short. It fails to come within shouting distance of anything beyond predictable storytelling, obviously engineered emotion, and humor that frequently assumes monsters going to college is enough to make us laugh. Decent ending aside, it's just a phenomenal disappointment in every way. Let's hold off on any grand pronouncements about Pixar's decline, though. I suspect they're going to be just fine.
The Blue Umbrella: A
Monsters University: C
The Blue Umbrella: A
Monsters University: C