2 stars out of 4 stars
In mostly all disciplines of art -- movies in particular -- you can generally apply this theory: once is a fluke, twice is a pattern and thrice is a trend.
For nearly two decades, Pixar studios were the measuring stick for the rest of the film industry. They took a genre that had long grown complacent (animation) and created a new gold standard. Everything they produced was exceptional. Later on, even during the first few years under the distant, but still hovering supervisory eye of distributor Disney, they remained, if not cutting edge, at least still ahead of the pack.
With "Cars 2," then "Brave" and now the desperate-feeling prequel "Monsters University," Pixar is now just another studio cranking out generic, acceptable, unspectacular "product" and in every possible way has become a "Son of Disney."
If this movie had come out five years before the vastly superior 2001 "Monsters Inc," it might have been perceived as groundbreaking, but that was also a time when CGI was still in its infancy stage and great animated stories were a thing of the future -- or in the case of Disney -- ancient history.
Rather than bridge back to the future with a great origin story, Pixar slaps together a Frankenstein hybrid; a safe, tried, true and bland vanilla stew that is "The Hunger Games" mixed with "Revenge of the Nerds" and (although not known when it was conceived) "The Internship." If you wanted, you could also include "Animal House" in the mix if the Delta's drank nothing but one percent milk, watched Nickelodeon and didn't swear. It's a bone-dry, kid-safe, non-frat party.
It bookends well. The opening sequence shows an elementary aged Mike (later voiced by Billy Crystal) as a tike in awe of everything Monsters related. He's the textbook rah-rah type; all enthusiasm but lacking in the goods to achieve his goal. Mike is the underdog everyone -- critics included -- wants to see clear that hurdle, whether it is with heart or sheer, gritty determination.
Years later, Mike finds himself at M.U. and is beside himself with joy and drive to burn but also is the pesky, know-it-all guy everyone avoids at every turn. It isn't long before Mike makes an enemy of Sully (John Goodman), a (in "Animal House" terminology) "legend" who believes he can skate thorough the curriculum simply because of his esteemed lineage. Mike feels like the snubbed kid at the playground while Sully looks to latch on with the cool, more-desirable jock crowd.
Plans for both leads go awry and each is forced to compromise far more than they wish and, after the eating of some major crow, they reluctantly band together to overcome all kinds of odds and emerge victorious. But are they really the victors? There's only roughly 10 or so minutes left in the sluggish 103 minute movie and it marks the first (and only) point in the proceedings where director Dan Scanlon and returning "Monsters Inc." scribes Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gershon offer up anything interesting or original.
Without giving anything away, these final moments aren't exactly politically incorrect but do hearken back to a time when children (and really, aren't college students just children who can drive and grow spotty facial hair?) had to put in a superior effort in order to be rewarded. No one got participation trophies and not everyone was a winner merely for just showing up. This will probably be more of a wake-up call for parents than their kids, a entire generation that is used to getting everything they want simply by asking for it, or, if that doesn't work -- kicking, screaming and pouting. It's a great end to a lazy, non-event of a film.
If the movie itself wasn't sub-par enough and a huge indicator of Pixar's glaring downward spiral, the studio (as usual) plays a short film before the start of "Monsters University" and it is among their best ever. "The Blue Umbrella" has no dialogue and features animation so technically advanced it looks more like live-action. It says more in five minutes then the movie does with 20 times as much time and is probably the only thing about the "Monsters University" experience people will remember with lasting fondness. (Disney/Pixar)