Something very strange has been happening at Pixar Studios as of late. After the decent “Toy Story 3,” the quality of their films quickly began to decline with projects like “Cars 2” and “Brave.” Now, as if to show us that their inventiveness is still waning, we are faced with a prequel to one of their biggest hits, “Monsters Inc.,” which acts as an origin story to the two lovable heroes from the original film. I’m sure there are people who probably wondered where these two got their start, but if the idea had been put to a vote, I’m guessing that most would have opted for something a little more on the original side.
The film begins by taking us back to where Mike (Voice of Billy Crystal) first gets the desire to become what’s known as a “Scarer,” a monster who scares kids and harvests their screams to be used as energy for the monster world. A few years later, Mike finds himself at Monsters University, where he is enrolled in the Scaring Program. However, things don’t go so well as he soon finds himself kicked out of the program thanks to a rivalry with another student, Sullivan (Voice of John Goodman).
Desperate to get back in, he makes a wager with the school’s Dean, Hardscrabble (Voice of Helen Mirren), that if he can win the school’s big scare competition, he’ll be allowed back in the program. The competition, which requires a team to compete, forces Mike to band together with a group of monsters from the least popular fraternity on campus, as well as his rival, Sullivan. Together, they have to work through the multiple challenges that are put before them in hopes of showing everyone that they are more than they seem.
Looking back at the very best works of Pixar, we find films that are an extraordinary experience due to their amazing ability to play on the audience’s heartstrings, allowing them to feel genuine emotional attachment to the characters due to top-notch storytelling. The first few minutes of “Up” in particular contain some of the most emotionally powerful storytelling of any animated film ever made. The same emotional draw can be found in “Toy Story” as a rivalry is turned into an unexpected friendship, or “Finding Nemo” as a father desperately tries to find his son despite nearly impossible odds. Even “Monsters Inc.” taps into the same area as a young human girl becomes involved with a pair of monsters, striking up another unlikely friendship.
Now we come to the last few films that the studio has put out. “Cars 2,” if you’ll pardon the pun, had a very mechanical feeling to it. It certainly didn’t help that the original film wasn’t particularly good in the first place, making the need for a sequel practically non-existent. “Brave” had some different issues all together. It tries to get to the same emotional spot that past Pixar films have reached, but the story itself is so awkward that it’s never able to get there. However, this didn’t stop it from inexplicably winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature earlier this year. I guess just the name Pixar carries a lot of weight regardless of quality.
With “Monsters University,” it feels as though there wasn’t very much thought put into it at all. Like “Brave,” it’s not bad as far as Pixar films go, but it’s also not particularly good. The predictable plot seems as though they threw it together in about five minutes and then stretched it out from there. Like some other animated films I’ve had to review over the years, I know it seems a little cruel to pick on a movie meant for kids, but even they were a little restless during this one. Perhaps the filmmakers should have been reminded that even kids would know the outcome given the fact that most of them would have certainly seen the original film.
To be fair, they do attempt to reach an emotional highpoint, but this is done far too late in the film, and with too little effort put into the attempt. We know Mike and Sully have to become actual friends at some point, so there’s a lot of anticipation growing as we slowly make our way toward that moment, but when it comes, the moment passes with a lot less impact than one would have thought.
There are things to like about the movie. The voice actors (Crystal, Goodman, Mirren, Nathan Fillion, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, etc.) all do a fantastic job. Plus the film has several comedic moments that make for a few good laughs. The animation, as you would expect, is incredible. I just wish there was more to recommend about it other than the basics. If Pixar would simply take chances on original ideas and thoroughly explore them like they used to, there’s a good chance that they could jump right back on top, instead of churning out films that are half-baked. I’d hate to see their masterpieces become nothing more than a distant memory. 2.5/4 stars.
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