Monsters Inc. is often woefully overlooked when talking about Pixar classics. The 2001 film has a heart that's sweet but not sentimental, and it is undeniably one of the most wildly inventive stories in the company's canon.
The adventures of lovable scarers Mike Wazowski and James P. "Sully" Sullivan take place in a fully formed, ingenious alternate universe, where the world of monsters is literally powered by children's screams.
In the prequel, the cute but derivative Monsters University, director Dan Scanlon (Cars) takes that universe as a given and merely inserts a tired trope -- Mike and Sully Go to College -- that adds little to the franchise.
There's no denying the candy-coloured allure of the Monsters U campus, so real you feel you could reach out and touch it, but the story is a pale imitation of college comedies that have gone before -- Revenge of the Nerds, in particular.
After a grade school field trip to the scare floor at Monsters Inc., Mike Wazowski's mind is made up: he is going to be a scarer when he grows up.
At Monsters U, he meets Sully in the School of Scaring program and the two are instant nemeses -- Mike believes single-minded purpose and studying hard are the key to an A, while the swaggering but lazy Sully relies on his natural ability and family reputation to get him through.
Their animosity comes to a head when both are turfed from the program by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren, icily intimidating). Their only chance is to join a fraternity and take part in the annual Scare Games to prove themselves worthy of a spot in the program.
But the sad sacks of Oozma Kappa ("We're OK!") can't hope to triumph over the swaggering jocks in the Roar Omega Roar fraternity, led by Johnny Worthington (an excellent alpha male-y Nathan Fillion)... or can they?
Mild laughs and amusing hijinks ensue, but there's nothing uproariously funny. Monsters Inc. had a fly-by-the-seat-of-its pants charm that made it actually seem ad-libbed -- remember Mike coming up with the impromptu song Put That Thing Back Where It Came From, or So Help Me? -- but Monsters University feels overly plotted and plodding.
Not to mention overpopulated -- there are just too many characters, each with a little bit of story that never gets explored.
The band of misfits in OK have so much promise, but we never get to know them well enough to feel a fraternal attachment. The two-headed twins Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley) could have been a wonderful gag -- Terri is a dance major; Terry isn't -- but they're wasted, as is house weirdo Art (Charlie Day), who provides the few laugh-out-loud lines. Dean Hardscrabble seems imported from a different movie -- the monsters here are mostly pastel and squishy; she is a menacing, winged dark centipede who moves with an ominous clicking.
That's not to say the story doesn't have its moments. The Scare Games are thrilling, and a clever sequence set in the human world plays on the difference between childhood and adult fears.
As always, the animation is stunning and the filmmakers' attention to detail is staggering. The careful reverse aging of the characters -- Sully is thinner with an exuberant quiff of hair, and Mike sports a retainer (Crystal gives him a slight lisp to reflect it) -- makes you feel as if you're seeing old yearbook photos of familiar friends.
There's something admirable about the movie's message, which isn't quite what you think it's going be, and the budding friendship between Mike and Sully is beautifully rendered.
With all that, however, Monsters University doesn't quite live up to its potential: C+.