Back before Cars fooled folks into thinking it was a Pixar film, Monsters Inc. always felt like the famed digital animation studio’s most gimmicky, high-concept attempt at a “real” kids film. But what a high concept: two monsters for whom scaring kids is a 9 to 5 job… until one actually enters their bizarre world. By any standard other than Pixar’s, it would have been the greatest animated film of the Bush 44 years. As it was, it was merely great.
Now there’s a sequel, and while it’s also gimmicky and not up to the status of its predecessors, Monsters University does have a silver lining: it proves, once and for all, that Disney’s buyout of Pixar really was the worst thing that could have happened to it. The Mouse just doesn’t understand The Lamp, which it already demonstrated by ditching the original sequel idea halfway through pre-production. That one was written by a pair of Groundlings vets, it was called Return to Scaradise, and it featured Mike and Sulley, our hero “scarers” from the first installment, now trapped in their worst nightmare: the frightening world of humans.
Also high concept and gimmicky, but not as deathly flat as University, which is helmed by Cars story artist Dan Scanlon, promoted to writer-director and making what is essentially his film debut. Welcome to the first G-rated college comedy, a unwieldy but kid-safe patchwork of Harry Potter, Animal House, Hunger Games, and Friday Night Lights. At this venerable institution, the little green eyeball and the big blue furry are nerd and jock BFFs, trying hard to make the football squad — that is, the scaring squad. And although the campus is the studio’s most authentic looking creation ever — the feel of a leafy fall day on the quad is almost physically palpable — it has the phoniest heart. Forget the fact that Pixar had to retcon these two characters meeting in sixth grade in order for them to do a meet-cute as dorm mates; this prequel is a frat comedy for grade schoolers, a collegiate coming-of-age for two characters known for their blue-collar factory jobs. None of this adds up.
Scanlon’s diversion from logic is nothing more than a mashup of every college film ever made, with no cliché untouched as a prequel, either. It’s enough to say that friends become enemies, enemies become friends, outcasts become humiliated, and training montages are everywhere, although the plot’s not much less vague than that description: spoilers really aren’t possible for a Revenge of the Nerds minus the sex and plus a lot of weird-eyed dolls. Everything rests on the gags, in other words, and there are precious few to go around. (Mastodon being passed off as mom-rock in this universe is an atypically subtle joke.)
Wasted along with the sequel opportunity are pros like Helen Mirren, Charlie Day, Dave Foley, and Alfred Molina, whose VO near-cameos don’t come with a single memorable line. Naturally, everything turns out for the best, Mike and Sulley’s eventual transition into the fold at Monsters Inc. being a given, but the actual sequel — and the numbers insist that there will be a sequel — should focus on how in hell our heroes are gonna pay off their student loans while working a lunchpail job. Those collectors — they know how to scare the shit out of people for a living.