Monsters University is out in theaters today. And it is great.
Just not, you know, Pixar-great.
The sequel to 2001's Monsters Inc. finds its protagonists, Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan, in their freshman year of college at Monsters University, where they've both declared majors in Scaring. Mike is a technical whiz who knows all the theory and science behind kid-scaring but isn't scary; Sulley, by contrast, is an ace scarer who operates on instinct and his long ancestry of champion scarers, but makes little effort to understand the tactical aspects of scaring. They dislike each other immediately. But when both fail their first-semester Scaring final and get kicked out of the esteemed MU Scaring program, they make a bet with the Dean (a dragon-winged, millipede-tailed terror voiced coolly by Helen Mirren): If they can whip into shape the only fraternity team who'll have them—the beyond-nerdy Oozma Kappas—and win the intramural Scare Games, they get back into the program. If they fail, they're expelled.
So why is Monsters University pretty great by any other standard but Pixar's? Because the best films to have come out of Pixar Animation Studios combine vivid, funny bursts of imagination with a deeply affecting story—and Monsters University only delivers one of those things.
In 2008 (in retrospect, the beginning of the end of the proverbial Golden Age of Pixar), the studio's president Ed Catmull wrote for the Harvard Business Review about how Pixar had managed to produce its now-legendary streak of animated family-film blockbusters. Catmull's piece spans several pages, but he sheds light on what, today, seems to be a telling aspect of Pixar's philosophy:
We're in a business whose customers want to see something new every time they go to the theater. This means we have to put ourselves at great risk. Our most recent film, Wall-E, is a robot love story set in a post-apocalyptic world full of trash. And our previous movie, Ratatouille, is about a French rat who aspires to be a chef. Talk about unexpected ideas! At the outset of making these movies, we simply didn't know if they would work. However, since we're supposed to offer something that isn't obvious, we bought into somebody's initial vision and took a chance.
Catmull's theory, then, is that audiences buy Pixar movie tickets because they want to see something they've never seen before.
If we're talking "unexpected ideas," Monsters University certainly operates on one: a bromantic comedy about two ambitious young creatures at Monsters University, where monsters of all "shapes, sizes, colors, and consistencies" carve out career paths into the many fields related to scaring human kids and using their screams as a power source. Yes, it's a world Pixar has obviously visited creatively before, but the expansion into monster college provides opportunities for new surprises. The Monsters University curriculum, for example, includes wonderfully imaginative classes like kiddie-bedroom-door carpentry and scream-capsule design. Even some of its campus-life gags work brilliantly. The work-study-as-paid-study-hall trope gets its own darkly funny send-up, as Mike reads a textbook while driving a floor waxer and absentmindedly sucks up a creepy-crawly classmate into its front brush. At another point, what initially looks to knowing grown-ups like a game of beer pong is slyly revealed to be a game of tic-tac-toe—in which the bros of Roar Omega Roar toss colored ping-pong balls onto a grid painted on a sticky, slug-like fraternity brother's belly.
But the problem with Monsters University, especially when compared to the rest of the Pixar oeuvre, is that there are plenty of fresh, dazzling new ideas—without enough familiar, affecting ones. Like some reviewers said of 2012's Brave, it seems to have found itself at a tradeoff between spectacle and story—and chosen spectacle.
As Alyssa Rosenberg wisely points out in her review, the greatest films of Pixar's greatest era—which is a bargument for another day, but can safely be said to include films like Up, the original Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-E—put colorful, kid-friendly dressings on visceral, universally familiar adult themes. "Pixar movies are at their best when they aren't afraid of the darkness in relationships like marriage, the ones between parents and children, or even between friends," she writes.
The Incredibles dealt with alienation and middle-aged listlessness; Finding Nemo and Up dealt with loss, grief, and the sometimes-uneven healing of broken families. And while the original Monsters Inc. dealt with, as Collider put it, "the terror of becoming a parent," Monsters University has no Boo to awaken Mike and Sulley's deeper, more unexpected emotional instincts. Rather, it has a series of inspired "Scare Games" competitions designed to test Mike and Sulley's mutual antagonism and finally force their band of misfits to work as a team. The setup makes for an entertaining, if predictable, journey, but its central question of what-could-happen-if-this-doesn't-all-work-out? is a little less emotionally gripping than some of its predecessors'.
For example: The underlying questions of some of Pixar's earlier greats include Finding Nemo's "Will little lost motherless Nemo finally be reunited with his worried dad, and will they learn to appreciate each other as they are?" and Up's "Will Carl and Russell save their beloved bird companion from an evil, fame-hungry explorer, honor Carl's beloved dead wife's wishes, and create the father-and-son relationship they each never had?" Family and honor hang in the balance.
By contrast, "Will two monsters named Mike and Sulley who just met learn to get along so that they get to stay enrolled in their college major of choice?" packs less of an emotional wallop. Especially when—alas, the curse of a prequel—we already know the answer to that first question.
Pixar prides itself on having created tiny miracles in the world of filmmaking by adhering to Catmull's "bold, new, beautiful ideas" vision for the studio. But perhaps it's the lesser-heralded, opposite approach—the "old, familiar, ugly feelings" vision, maybe?—that it should revisit.