Review: Pixar delivers a largely familiar ‘Monsters University’ with a few new twists

Perhaps we’re entering an age of lowered expectations when it comes to Pixar, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

Pixar deserved the reputation they built for themselves as a storytelling titan during their initial run of titles, and one could make a case that everything through “Toy Story 3” was part of a cycle that is now concluded. The decision to start playing the sequel game on a regular basis, no matter how story-driven, has created a shift in the way they are being treated, and it’s hard to deny that it feels like a bit of a disappointment.

I am weary of prequels. I think they are narrative dead ends in the first place, and I don’t understand the appeal. When they announced that the follow-up to the sweet and smart “Monsters Inc.” was going to be a prequel, I thought it sounded really dreadful. And, honestly, I’ve barely looked at the marketing materials at this point. Why bother? Pixar movies are as pre-sold to the family audience as anything can be, and I know for a fact that whatever they release, we’ll end up seeing.

The nice surprise about “Monsters University” is that it marks a return to the idea that they can explore complicated emotional ideas wrapped in the trappings of a family comedy. Do I think it was a necessary piece of storytelling in order to understand the characters? No. But they’ve taken advantage of what feels like an overtly commercial decision to do something that carries more weight than I would have expected, and that’s admirable.

The film opens with a flashback to the single most formative experience in the life of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). He takes a tour of the Monsters Inc. factory with his class, and he’s so infatuated with the guys who work on the scaring floor that he wanders away and, accidentally, walks all the way into a real child’s room during an actual scare collection. He immediately knows what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and when we jump forward in time, we find a college-aged Mike arriving for his first day at Monsters University, where he plans to major in Scaring so he can fulfill that dream.

When Mike meets Sully (John Goodman), whose father is a legendary Scarer in his own right, there’s an instant rivalry. Sully looks at Mike and sees a guy who wants more than he’ll ever have, and Mike looks at Sully and sees a guy who is having his whole life handed to him and who doesn’t appreciate anything. It doesn’t help that they both draw the ire of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who thinks both of them unworthy of the Scaring program. Very quickly, they find themselves having to depend on one another if they expect to progress any further in the lives they believe they’re supposed to lead.

The majority of the film is a sort of slobs against the snobs riff, a Pixar version of the ’80s college comedies, with Mike and Sully joining the worst fraternity on campus and somehow turning that group into winners. And for a majority of the film, I was surprised by just how closely it hewed to the formula. It’s not bad. The other members of the frat are voiced by Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, and Charlie Day, and it’s all funny and amiable and enjoyable enough. And while I was watching the first two-thirds of the film, I felt like it was a piffle. It never really felt like any of it mattered beyond how fast the punchlines happened, at least not after the opening scene.

There is a switch, though, and for a while, there is a different degree of thematic heft. In broad terms, “Monsters University” is about the value of failure. It is about the second choices we make in life. It is about what happens when plans do not work out. It is such a direct refutation of the “you are special/Chosen One myth” culture that we are positively soaked in that it’s almost hard to believe they’d go for it. There is real value in the way the film explores Mike’s destiny and the distance there is between where he ends up and where he believes he’s going to go, and while I think kids will mainly just soak it up as entertainment, there is something here that I hope sneaks in as well.

I don’t even think they do it with a particularly heavy hand. My issue with the film is more that it leans too heavily on genre convention before it finally turns into something richer. I wish they’d subverted the material earlier, or in a more organic way. Part of what makes the best of Pixar’s movies stand out is that they unfold in ways that defy expectation. I couldn’t tell you what genre “Up” belongs to, and the original “Monsters Inc” isn’t shaped like any other movie I can name. They are stories that simply work as stories, not as reference or as genre. “Monsters University” may eventually become something more than the pleasant college comedy it first seems to be, but not to the degree that I would like.

I think Dan Scanlon does a great job both staging the comedy and handling some of the more intimate emotional beats, and I do want to praise both Billy Crystal and John Goodman once again for so ably summoning up the characters again. They do a nice job of charting the developing friendship between the two. The score by Randy Newman certainly fits as a bookend to the score for the original, with a heavier emphasis on stuff that sounds more like actual school songs instead of the first fiilm’s breezy jazz. I do have to point out, though, that the main “Monsters University” alma mater song is so uncomfortably close to the Monty Python song “Every Sperm Is Sacred” from “Meaning Of Life” that every single time it played, the Python lyrics flashed through my head whether I wanted them to or not. I suspect it’s a complete accident on Newman’s part, but good god, they’re similar. Talk about an unfortunate melodic echo.

I’m not sure if Pixar is ever going to re-establish themselves as the same sort of bold, unpredictable company that they were at their peak a few years ago, but in some ways, maybe it’s better that their accomplishments start to look more human scale. It allows them to just focus on doing what they’re doing and without the almost overwhelming expectations that were starting to be piled on their every move. I may not love the idea of more sequels to Pixar movies, but at least it feels like they tried to take creative and thematic advantage of the opportunity here, and that’s more than is true of most sequels.

“Monsters University” opens June 21st.