For fifteen years, the release of a new Pixar film was a cause for celebration. From 1995’s “Toy Story” all the way to “Toy Story 3” in 2010, it was almost a guarantee the studio would churn out one of the best films of the year, animated or live action. Since the peak of their creative powers with the last “Toy Story,” Pixar has slipped. “Cars 2” was a disaster. “Brave” was a noble effort, but a narrative mess. “Monsters University,” a prequel to the classic “Monsters Inc.,” continues the downward trend for the once unflappable studio.
“University” explores the origins of the friendship between Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) as they attend college. Both of them are studying to become scarers at Monsters Inc. and the bookworm Mike and the big man on campus Sully quickly clash over their respective differences, culminating in the future friends almost getting expelled. The rest of the film, from joining the Oozma Kappa, the worst fraternity on campus, to competing in a sort of Greek Games, is a complete rip-off of “Revenge of the Nerds,” all the way down to a monster that looks a lot like Ogre, aka actor Donald Gibbs.
Pixar really blew a chance with “University.” This could have been a classic send-up of both college and college films, but instead “University” clings to a sort of 1950s go Greek or go home mentality that makes a lot of the movie feel disingenuous. Pixar had the opportunity to create the ultimate college film for both children and adults, but they chickened out. Their unwillingness to get within 100 feet of anything taboo keeps everything safe and harmless, but it also waters down the experience, especially for adults.
“University” suffers from the same problem most prequels or reboots do; the ending is already known before the opening credits roll. No matter how bad things get for Mike and Sully, its no secret they become best friends and change the world of monsters, so what’s the point? To find out why Randall (Steve Buscemi) hates the two so much? Nobody wants to read a book they know the ending to, and the same goes for movies.
Pixar used to push themselves to make the best film possible, putting story above everything else. It’s like they’ve been coasting ever since “Toy Story 3.” Sure, “Monsters University” is safe, harmless entertainment, but that’s what all of the other animation studios churn out on a daily basis. Pixar is better than that, or at least they used to be.