By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
7:10 PM EDT, June 20, 2013
Remember the days when Pixar meant perfection? When you could count on its animation to amaze, its stories to sweep you up?
Or the smooth ride in "Cars"? The "Toy Story" pals whose friendship was anything but plastic? The love among the ruins unearthed by "Wall-E"? A clownfish dad's deep-sea desperation in "Finding Nemo"?
What has happened to the memory makers who gave us all that?
They are nowhere to be found at "Monsters University," the latest shiny new movie to roll off what increasingly feels like the Disney-Pixar assembly line.
"Cars 2" certainly sputtered. Even "Brave," which won the 2012 Oscar for animated feature, didn't seem especially brave.
"Monsters University" is not so much substandard. It just isn't the Ivy League. Or close to what we've come to expect from any animated film flying John Lasseter's flag. Seven years into his rule as mayor of Disney's toon town, one has to wonder, given the recent slippage, whether the artistic leader who once prided originality above all has gone suit-and-tie on us. Did he lose that outsider's edge after his enterprising upstart was gobbled by Walt's behemoth?
Whatever the reasons, "Monsters University," the prequel to the mild-mannered "Monsters, Inc.," is mostly memorable for being fine but forgettable. The 12-year span between the two suggests trepidation.
Directed by Dan Scanlon, "MU's" primary colors run true-blue enough. The animation is snappy in the way it handles an extremely eclectic-looking bunch of monsters. The 3-D effects are nifty but, as with so much about "MU," not necessary.
There are new monsters such as Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) who are terribly intriguing. That British accent is so handy when the dialogue calls for disdain. The dean's bad attitude suits her buggy body, the millipede-like legs clicking ominously to signal her approach.
Many of the favorite fear factors are back, starting with that grinning, green one-eyed charmer, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), and his main man, the towering, shaggy, blue Sulley (John Goodman). Mike, with the help of Sulley's massive monster shoulders, carried the first film, and the duo are responsible for much of what works in this one.
As voices go, Goodman and Crystal are a swell match. One's deep, rumbling good-time guy plays nicely off the other's slightly squeaky overachiever. In fact, the A-type Mike is the most appealing character Crystal has had in a while.
All in all, it's a pretty cool crowd they are hanging with. One that features Steve Buscemi, though his bug-eyed, purple-pleasing Randy has some visibility issues. Suffice it to say that there are quirks aplenty in this motley new crew.
But the freshness of the first idea — a world powered by the screams of children and the monsters responsible for keeping the lights on — has gone stale in the storytelling by screenwriters Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird and Scanlon.
The central conceit of the sequel turns back the hands of time by about 10 years. Mike and Sulley, the working guys and best friends punching the clock in "Monsters, Inc.," are about to meet for the first time. Freshmen at MU, both are out to prove they can be the scariest.
Sulley has the edge; screams run in his family. But Mike has hope, a head for nightmare numbers and more monster moxie than the little cutie should. So the guys have issues to work through.
As with most colleges, MU is governed by cliques. Basically, the campus breakdown is hot, cool and nerd. Guess which one likes Mikey?
When it comes to study, Sulley isn't interested. The only class that matters to Mike is the one that will put him on track for the prized scare degree. He wants to be one of those guys who walks through the door to the human world and into kids' dreams. The one who can put the scare meter into the red zone.
The action turns on MU's fabled Scare Games — like the Hunger Games, except no one dies or worries about dinner. Who will win: the big monsters on campus or the little guys?
In addition to the predictability of that scenario, the college pranks — where the film could have had some major fun — lack much invention. A stolen mascot? Really? Yes, it's a monster, but then aren't they all?
Ultimately, the movie is about friendships and loyalties. All are tested in the usual ways. The buddy bonding that should be tugging the heartstrings right about now doesn't have much pull. And the "rah, rah" marching band music is downright irritating — and dated.
That sour note is surprising in a genre that has distinguished itself for showcasing great tunes. More confounding, the brilliant Randy Newman composed the score and conducted. Maybe he had a bad day.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release
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