For the most part, the Pixar films have worked so effectively because they draw you into an emotional storyline early and efficiently. From Toy Story to Brave, they've always presented a reason for us to care about the characters while dazzling us with their imagery. Partly because it's a prequel, Monsters University is one of the few films from the gigantically successful studio that fails to deliver an emotional payoff.
Billy Crystal returns as the voice of Mike Wazowski, a short, round, green creature with a single giant eye and a burning desire to graduate from the titular academic institution with a degree in scaring -- though he's so adorable he'll never even startle a fly. He immediately butts heads with James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman), the son of one of the most revered scarers of all time. While Mike knows more about frightening children than anyone in school, Sulley coasts through on his ferocious roar.
When Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) kicks the two out of school after they get into a fight that breaks her most prized possession, the enemies must join together in order to win the Scare Games, an annual campus event to find the most frightening fraternity or sorority on campus. Teaming up with a band of unscary misfits, the duo do everything they can to put their differences aside and achieve their dreams.
Maybe because we know already from Monsters, Inc. that Mike and Sulley go on to work as a team on the scare floor of the powerful energy company, there is little drama in the conflict this prequel establishes. That would be less of a problem if the film were non-stop funny, but the humor in Monsters University is sadly lacking. In the past, when Pixar films have fallen short on the story level, they've been jam-packed with business and jokes -- like Mater's confrontation with a bidet in the underwhelming Cars 2 -- and breathtaking visual artistry. With Monsters University, it's possible that audiences may begin taking Pixar's continued state-of-the-art technical mastery for granted; people aren't as easily impressed if they don't care about what they're watching.
Director Dan Scanlon's low-budget comedy Tracy concerned a beloved local children's television show host. It has a creativity and a sense of satire that's missing entirely from his big-budget debut. Because Monsters, Inc. exposes how scaring turns out to be far from the most efficient way to power the monster world, there were great opportunities with the prequel to comment on how colleges have come more and more to be used as trade schools. While that might be a bit too ambitious for a family film, they could have at least nodded to the humorous irony that our lead characters are knocking themselves out to learn something that's going to be totally useless one day. However, instead of shooting for depth, the filmmakers stick with efficiently presented but uninspired one-liners and visual gags.
Pixar is known for giving its directors constant feedback from the talented brain trust (John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, etc.) that built the studio into the powerhouse it is. But Monsters University is the first time the finished product feels like it was produced by a committee, rather than an artist with something to say.