End of June. School's out, but many newly-freed students (and their parents) will be quick to reenter the academic world this summer at the movies via Disney/Pixar's Monsters University, a college-based prequel to their beloved 2001 feature Monsters, Inc.
Those familiar with the original won't need much of a refresher course to recall the clever premise behind Pixar's Monsters universe. The monsters rely on the screams of children as their primary energy source, and where do monsters go to learn how to scare the tots? Why, Monsters University of course – or possibly rival school M Tech, but that's a moot point.
Mike Wasowski (Billy Crystal) dreams of being an elite “scarer”, but being little more than a green eyeball on legs makes it hard for his fellow students, or even the haughty Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), to take him seriously. James Sullivan (John Goodman), meanwhile, coasting on the recognition of his famed father's name, is naturally too cool for school, but relishes in being perceived as top dog on campus. In the typical college movie vein, an unlikely partnership is formed, the pair join an inept fraternity of monsters even cuddlier than them, and must triumph in a series of extra-curricular competitions to avoid expulsion from the scaring program.
No doubt the team of filmmakers (lead by director Dan Scanlon) had a lot of fun trying to cram every college movie cliché other than toga parties and panty raids into a 90-minute kids movie, but given their decidedly pre-college target demo, it's not hard to see why not all of that fun actually translates over to the audience. Some gags occasionally work, but many of them are as limp as the story onto which they're so obviously tacked.
That's not to say Monsters University isn't at least a brisk and mildly amusing diversion. Even with a thin plot for which the stakes have never been lower (we already know where our two buddies ultimately end up), Pixar's creative committee has a firm enough grasp of structure and pace to hold our attention. In an age when numerous animation studios are content to release films that are unbearable for anyone over the age of 12 to watch, we can at least be thankful for that.
Critically minded adults who have come to expect thematically rich and universally moving stories from Pixar every time (we really were spoiled rotten from 2007-2010), might find themselves disappointed for a third year in a row with the studio's output. All they'll find in this outing is a passable kiddy flic wrapped up in a fuzzy but simplistic message about about everyone's inherent uniqueness – nothing that even approaches the enviro-political subtext of its predecessor Monsters, Inc.
Does Monsters University pass the final exam? Barely. Is it unfair that we demand better from a studio that was once atop the honour roll of animation? Possibly. Remember that in the world of academia, a simple pass is all you need to make the grade. However, Pixar might want to start improving its marks if it wants to hang on to all the audience goodwill it worked so hard to earn years ago. Would be a shame to lose it.
**1/2 out of ****