With its G rating, the target audience for Disney/Pixar’s Monsters University, a 3D prequel to the 2001 hit Monsters, Inc., is presumably children. Indeed, more than a few of them were present at the screening I attended, and I would say they ranged in age from eighteen months to eight years. With the exception of the eighteen-month-olds, the rest of the kids presumably wanted to see it, not only because of their familiarity with the previous film, but also because the ads have appealed directly to them. And yet they seemed to grow restless as it played, as if they were losing interest in what was happening.
I think I now understand why this was happening; the story is set on a college campus, and every character, theme, and joke is at the mercy of college-related social and academic affairs. Essentially, they were discovering that there was nothing about the film they could relate to.
It pains me to have to say this, but Monsters University has officially overshadowed Cars 2 as the weakest film Pixar has ever made. It doesn’t seem designed for anyone on either end of the age spectrum. Children cannot be expected to understand the significance of earning a degree with the intention of pursuing a career, nor are they likely to know anything about fraternities, clubs devoted to extracurricular activities, or sophomoric pranks like stealing the rival college’s pig mascot. Similarly, adults will probably be put off by the innocent way with which the story is told; they will view it as a highly sanitized version of National Lampoon’s Animal House.
And although lack of originality is hardly a new phenomenon in movies – or in any narrative form, for that matter – the film nevertheless suffers from it. It is, in fact, so generically formulated, both structurally and thematically, that I would wager even kids can guess what will happen.
When introduced in 2001, the one-eyed Mike Wazowski and the furry behemoth James “Sulley” Sullivan were roommates and employees at Monsters, Inc., where it was their job to magically enter the rooms of human children and collect their frightened screams as a power source. It was ultimately discovered that laughter yielded much better results. Monsters University takes place in the years prior to these events, showing how Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) first met as students at the titular college and transitioned from worst enemies to best friends. The two could not be anything less alike; Mike, bookish and unpopular, studies feverishly in an attempt to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a scarer at Monsters, Inc., while Sulley, the posturing BMOC, coasts by largely on family connections. The irony is that Mike, so resolute, is deemed not scary enough. Sulley, on the other hand, doesn’t take his studies seriously at all and yet is a natural-born scarer.
The rivalry between the two monsters is so great that school dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), an overly stern cross between a centipede and a dragon, flunks them both out of a prestigious scaring program. Mike, determined to prove himself worthy of reentering, joins a small misfit fraternity with the intention of taking part in an annual school scaring competition – a monster triathlon, if you will. In order for Mike’s fraternity to qualify, they need one more team member. Here enters Sulley, who also wants to reenter the scaring program. Albeit, it’s for reasons less academic and more egocentric; he was a member of a much more popular fraternity before being kicked out, and now he wants back in. I won’t describe the events of the competition, and I leave it for you to discover who wins each round and how. Although the final round includes a genuinely surprising twist, the ramifications of the twist aren’t surprising at all, given how stories like this tend to play out.
And that’s the most disappointing thing of all. Of the several reasons why the Pixar films have typically been better than the average animated family fare, an emphasis on story and character development places at the top of the list; the creative teams sought not only to stimulate the imagination but also to appeal to the intelligence of both children and adults. As evidence, consider the masterful WALL-E, which, apart from a breathtaking visual achievement, was a touching love story, an insightful commentary on environmentalism and mass consumerism, and a thoughtful character study. The filmmakers made it possible for children to respond to the title character; yes, he’s a robot, but he’s also inquisitive, caring, and brave. There’s no indication that anyone involved with Monsters University went that extra mile. The story and characters are built on ideas so broadly defined that they could have fit into any family film, animated or otherwise. Its message is also not the most compelling, especially for anyone who actually does need a college education to get ahead.
In the spirit of fairness, children may respond well to the references made to the previous film, the most significant being the character of Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi), a chameleon; before becoming a cutthroat competitor and the primary antagonist of Monsters, Inc., he was a nerdy outcast and, for a brief period of time, Mike’s roommate and friend. They will undoubtedly enjoy the bright visuals (which will, of course, be dimmed by a pair of 3D glasses) and the monsters themselves, which are made to look otherworldly without being overly frightening. But when it comes to plot, character, and theme, there isn’t much Monsters University can do for them. I know this because I sat in a theater full of children, and they spent more time either squirming in their seats or requesting bathroom breaks than actually watching the film. There’s nothing quite like having to shift your legs to one side every five minutes to allow a mom and her three children to pass by.