Even before its six endings, Monsters University is a movie of unsure identity and unclear purpose. Yes, it’s a prequel to Monsters, Inc., in which we meet Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) before they become professional child frighteners. But other than that, why are we watching? One thing’s for sure: we’re not watching because the filmmakers had a compelling, focused story they wanted to tell.
That’s the difference between a company product and a work of art. During its early, glory years, Pixar was able to combine those two qualities, so that ingeniously original stories also happened to make for good Disney rides. With Cars 2 and now this, Pixar seems to have shifted into factory production mode. Both feel like they’re driven by market demand, not narrative compulsion.
That’s not to say Monsters University is devoid of personality. Mike – the green guy with one eye and no waist – is as amusingly and unreasonably confident as ever, this time as a college freshman eager to learn the art of the scare. Sully is envisioned as a lazy, frat-boy bro, hoping to coast through college on the strength of his one good roar. He – and everyone at the school – scoffs at Mike’s scaring capabilities (never mind that I’ve always found him to be one of the creepier figures of the bunch) and so the movie is set up as friendly rivalry, with Mike determined to prove everyone wrong and Sully coming to appreciate him in the process.
It’s all fairly predictable and affirming in a way that’s family-friendly, though not exactly organic. This is especially the case in the film’s final 20 minutes, which offer multiple climaxes and a fair amount of forced and arbitrary soul searching sandwiched in between. This latter touch, as well as the movie’s many sight gags, feel like ingredients to a Pixar recipe rather than developments that arise naturally out of the tale being told. It’s one thing to look back on a particular studio’s films and notice similar qualities being repeated among them. It’s another to start with those qualities and use them to build a particular type of film.