monsters university posterNot even the coldest of hearts can resist the affable charm of monster-duo Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, respectively), but that doesn’t mean it’s fair for them to carry a threadbare, unoriginal narrative on their backs and expect Toy Story 2-levels of greatness to transpire. Disney•Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. prequel, Monsters University, is so reliant on the familiarity of Mike and Sully’s banter that all else is spare change. Prequels have become common gaffes in Hollywood, and as much as it pains me to add Monsters University to this embarrassing statistic, this tame and uninspired entry in the Monsters franchise leaves me no choice. Aside from an ending that is refreshingly controversial given animation’s kid-appeasing/parental-approved formula, director Dan Scanlon’s collaborative screenplay retreads instead of innovates. Monsters University, while not a bad film, is essentially Revenge of the Nerds meets Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, except without the timeless thrills of either.

The beginning of Monsters University holds incredible promise: an innocent, wide-eyed Mike Wazowski, still in grade school and with braces reflecting his nerd social caste, embarks on a field trip with his class to the Monsters, Inc headquarters. Nostalgia sets in upon being reintroduced to the setting we fell so in love with in the first film. The adventure of a lifetime is on the horizon for Wazowski after an act of rebellion garners him major respect from the Scarers his class has come to observe. The quickest way to become a Scarer, Wazowski learns, is to attend Monsters University and enroll in what’s known as the “Scaring Program.” Wazowski sees “scaring” as his calling, and he’s dying to prove wrong the naysayers and bullies who view him as nothing more than a non-frightening pipsqueak. This opening scene is integral for our empathy toward Wazowski; his yearning to become the top of his class at the “Scaring Program” — despite all signs suggesting he’s not cut out for this career path — yield our respect tenfold. We are able to overlook Wazowski’s overachiever cockiness because we want his dreams to be achieved no matter the cost.

'Monsters University' is undeniable fun...but not as innovative as Pixar's former works.
‘Monsters University’ is undeniable fun…but not as groundbreaking as Pixar’s former triumphs.

James P. “Sully” Sullivan plays more of a supporting role in Monsters University, with far less to do in the grand scheme of the narrative compared to his little green pal. I’ve always found Sully a bit one-dimensional, but his heartwarming relationship with Boo in the first film justifiably certified his fan favorite status for life. Besides, the voice of John Goodman is more soothing than any chicken soup concoction, right? Without Boo, however, Sully simply functions as a motivator for Wazowski. After butting-heads upon introduction, the two are forced to partner up immediately following their dismissal from the “Scaring Program.” Wazowski isn’t inherently scary and Sully, who rests on his father’s notoriety as one of the greatest “Scarers” ever, is lazy and unwilling to apply technique to his methods. Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) promises to reinstate them into the program so long as they win the university’s annual competition, “The Scare Games.” Sully and Wazowski need to form a team of five in order to participate, and so end up joining misfit fraternity Oozma Kappa. The “nerds vs. popular kids” setup is nothing we haven’t seen before, but at the very least Scanlon and his crew make the cliché proceedings mildly entertaining.

Dame Helen Mirren makes a scarily effective entrance as Dean Hardscrabble.
Dame Helen Mirren makes a scarily effective entrance as Dean Hardscrabble.

Oozma Kappa is made up of a memorable voice cast that includes Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day and Peter Sohn. Each of the characters they play are fleshed-out and hilarious in their own unique way. Charlie Day, in particular, is exceptional as the weirdly “out-there” Art, a dexterous purple monster who would give Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards a run for his money when it comes to flexibility. Unfortunately, the fraternity’s arch nemeses have zero dimensionality. Nathan Fillion is wasted as Johnny Worthington, head of rival fraternity Roar Omega Roar. He’s your typical dumb jock with nothing more to offer than insults pulled from every 80s high school film and 90s teen soap. Helen Mirren makes a stunning entrance as she-dragon Dean Hardscrabble, mercilessly impatient and gloriously wicked, but soon fades into the background once “The Scare Games” commence. A last-minute attempt to pacify her villainy could have been a success had she been more of an active presence. Instead, her arc is disappointing since you never feel she reaches the height of her evilness. Steve Buscemi returns as Randell, the “Big Bad” of Monsters, Inc., but even his “nerd-sacrificing-friendship-to-be-one-of-the-cool-kids” transformation is utterly predictable.

As "Art," Charlie Day once again tickles the funny bone.
As “Art,” Charlie Day once again tickles the funny bone.

Despite the thematic significance of Monsters University (overcoming obstacles and failure), the root of the film’s problem is its inability to challenge our own expectations, not just of the “campus film” but also of Pixar property. I might have been too charitable with my (***) score of Brave last year, but I won’t be lulled into satisfaction again, not unless there’s a strong whiff of creative ingeniousness. Monsters University’s conclusion is commendable for its subversion of the expectational “happy ending” of every Disney fairytale, but the film borrows too heavily from other movies for me not to feel somewhat crestfallen. Pixar is synonymous with pioneering new ideas, not going back in time to borrow old ones and covering up its unoriginality with fancy animation sequences (which, I can’t lie, are fantastic in Monsters University). Monsters University feels more like a Shrek sequel, brushing elbows with pop culture instead of becoming its own pop culture phenomenon. Perhaps most disconcerting is the film’s ten-second explanation of how Sully and Wazowski end up working at Monsters, Inc. Part of you feels your time was wasted, while the other part can’t deny the fragmented moments of joy the film provides (the hysterical tunnel scene and suspenseful library sequence are two of my favorites). Nonetheless, by film’s end that sinking feeling you knew all along to be true is affirmed: a true sequel to Monsters, Inc. would have been so much more rewarding.

Disney•Pixar’s Monsters University hits theaters nationwide June 21st, 2013. Watch the final trailer below as an appetizer before the main course next week:

blue umbrellaPixar ShortThe Blue Umbrella (**½):

I know I shouldn’t expect a perfect followup to last year’s Paperman, but where John Kahrs’ Oscar-winning short balanced technical innovation with a nostalgically invigorating love story, The Blue Umbrella rests on being safe and sweet. I love the way the animators give expression to every object that litters the bustling streets of Times Square — be it a stop sign or USPS mailbox — but their protagonist’s miserable-turned-hopeful metamorphosis is a thread Pixar has spun time and time again. Cutesy facial expressions that attempt to make an audience go “ooh” and “aww” are devices of animation past. Nowadays we yearn for something more in a Pixar short, one that hits not just our own child sensibilities but our adult ones as well. As beautifully designed as The Blue Umbrella may be, it’s a light drizzle compared to other Pixar shorts that have upheld the studio’s firm dominance in this field.

Here’s a clip of the short that precedes Monsters University: