By Dana Stevens|
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures USA
Pixar Studios has painted itself into a corner (though because it’s Pixar, it’s an adorable corner, surrounded by top-quality enamel paint). They’ve established a reputation for themselves as the animation studio of record, the place for state-of-the-art children’s entertainment that also reliably hits the sweet spot for adults. At their best, Pixar movies can realistically aspire to the status of lasting cinematic art. (We won’t quibble here about which of these movies should enter the pantheon—I’m a partisan of Ratatouille and the Toy Story trilogy myself.)
But because Pixar’s rep has been polished to such a high sheen over the course of three decades, the slightest bit of tarnish really shows. Cars 2 (2011) was no worse than most hectic, underplotted summer kids’ movies, and better than many; still, upon its release there was much garment-rending and tooth-gnashing about the declining standards of Pixar.
Monsters University, will probably get some of those same reactions: Though it’s a far sight better than Cars 2, it falls well short of the standard set by its excellent predecessor, Monsters Inc. (2001). And though this is a sweet, clever, gorgeously animated movie I’d be glad to take my kid to on a Saturday afternoon, I’m not sure it’s one I’d insist all my grownup friends drop what they’re doing to see.
monster world, which makes Monsters University, among other things, a film about the anxieties of meritocracy. Shy, nerdy, minuscule Mike has dreamed since childhood of becoming a world-class scarer. He eschews frat parties to bone up on his sneaking and roaring technique, the better to impress the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, wonderfully animated as a dour, glowering centipede).
Monster U’s biggest mistake is to make its chief conflict a monster-on-monster one—the annual running of the university’s intramural Scare Games, in which the pitiful Oozma Kappa team must take on the sneering jocks of Roar Omega Roar. Monsters Inc. focused instead on the relationship between Sulley and the little girl he accidentally brought across the threshold into the monster world.
Monsters University doesn’t truck in that kind of rich, fairy-tale–like symbolic meaning—in essence, it’s a sports movie, a simple, inspirational story of monster friendship, teamwork, and pluck. I’m not sure I needed to revisit Mike and Sulley’s world 12 years later (or, looked at from their point of view, earlier). But once you find yourself whisked over the threshold, it’s a colorful, funny, charming place to spend an afternoon.