Pixar has become a victim of its own success. How else to explain the collective yawn with which Monsters University, a summer 2013 release, was met, especially relative to the cooing celebration lain at the feet of Pixar's parent company's Frozen?
Monsters University, a prequel to the wildly popular Monsters Inc., tells the story of how Mike and Sulley, voiced by Bill Crystal and John Goodman, respectively, became friends and partners, a relationship that will one day make the pair the top producing employees at Monsters Inc.
It is a fine film. It is not as good as Frozen, but it is not far off either. And yet it feels a million miles away. I believe this is down to expectations -- to be more specific, the kind of unrealistic ones you create when you release Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3 in a little less than nine years.
And I believe this is really our collective problem and not theirs. We'd all love for films of that caliber to keep being pumped out, but that doesn't mean we should overlook Pixar's lesser offerings because, at least in the case of Monsters University, they also seem to have quite a bit of merit. MU puts Mike and Sulley in a kind of PG-rated Animal House/Revenge of the Nerds setting and at first pits them against each other.
Mike is versed in every scaring tactic in the textbook, but is dreadfully lacking when it comes to actual scaring talent. Sulley, meanwhile, is coasting almost entirely on his family name, doing very little to learn about his chosen craft. Their respective flaws put them in the crosshairs of the tough taskmaster Dean Hardscrabble, voiced by Helen Mirren, who drops them from the prestigious "Scaring" program at the University.
With little other choice, Mike and Sulley team up to win their way back in to the program via the "Scare Games" and a ragtag fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa. It's strange to see Mike and Sulley at odds, and so a bit of a relief when they team up and win each other's begrudging respect. Better still that they must do so with the outcasts of their fraternity, a group that includes misfits voiced by Sean Hayes, Dave Foley and (especially) Charlie Day.
Monsters University does not deliver the laughs of its predecessor, and its story does not reach the heights of, say, WALL-E or Up (my two personal favorites from Pixar). But it does have two valuable and all-too-rare messages (especially for family fare) about the very real limitations we all must face and about the real price to be paid for cheating even if it's for a good cause.
MU doesn't approach the Pixar canon, but it's not a bad film in the least.