Running time: 103 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.
The thing that sets Pixar films apart from other animated movies _ the force that delights us and tugs at us all, regardless of who we are or where we come from _ is story. Story has been paramount above all else and a signature of this production company since its inception two decades ago.
It’s also something that, sadly, has been in diminishing supply in the past few Pixar offerings: “Cars 2,” “Brave” and their latest, “Monsters University.”
This prequel to the 2001 charmer “Monsters, Inc.” doesn’t feel as flat and phoned-in as “Cars 2,” which remains the weakest Pixar movie from a creativity standpoint. But it pales in comparison to the best the studio has had to offer, which is especially disappointing given both the inventive premise and unexpected emotion of “Monsters, Inc.”
It is essentially “Revenge of the Nerds,” with fur. And scales. And whatever gooey, gelatinous substance comprises the outer coating of various other oddball creatures in this crazy parallel world. Director Dan Scanlon’s film is chock full of the sorts of clever details, colorful characters and lively pacing you’ve come to expect from a Pixar picture. And Billy Crystal and John Goodman enjoy terrific, spirited banter once more as they lead a strong voice cast.
It’s all enjoyable enough. It just never digs deep enough to move us.
“Monsters University” follows Crystal’s Mike Wazowski and Goodman’s James P. “Sulley” Sullivan years before they’d become the master scarers of Monsters, Inc. _ when they were just college freshmen at the start of their careers. (If you’ll recall, these are the creatures who are the best at scaring little kids, whose screams serve as a crucial energy source.) Young Mikey, a tiny, lime-green ball with one eye and spindly limbs, doesn’t look terribly intimidating, but he’s smart and resourceful and he’s got moxie on his side. Naturally, he clashes on the first day of classes with Sulley, a big, blue wall of fur and a legacy who doesn’t feel the need to work terribly hard.
When their rivalry gets them both kicked out of the school’s prestigious Scare Program, Mikey comes up with a way to get back in: They’ll join a fraternity and compete in the annual Scaring Games. (Helen Mirren is witheringly dismissive as the voice of the centipede-like Dean Hardscrabble, the only character who might be even remotely disturbing for the littlest viewers.)
The house Mikey and Sulley reluctantly pledge is a paltry crew of misfits _ the Tri-Lambdas of the monster world, if you will. They include an octopus who’s a middle-aged former salesman (Joel Murray), the bickering, two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean P. Hayes and Dave Foley) and the doughy, five-eyed Scott “Squishy” Squibbles. (Peter Sohn) Their letters are Oozma Kappa which makes them _ that’s right _ OK. (Much of this stuff is funnier if you were in a house yourself in college. The dorky Delta Gamma in me enjoyed the cute, matching sweaters these guys wore.)
Naturally, the powerful and popular fraternities and sororities underestimate and bully them from one elaborate challenge to the next. But the Oozma Kappas have heart, dammit! So you won’t be terribly shocked that they shock the world.
Somewhere, though, amid the slapstick and festivities, there’s a message about coming to terms with what you’re best at doing and learning to do it the best you can. It’s unusually sobering but useful advice, especially in this economy, as well as in an overly coddling world in which kids get trophies merely for showing up.