June 21--"Monsters University" is funny, and the animation is beautiful.
It is not, however, as unique or as inspired or as charming as the Pixar standard has led us to believe we should expect from its films. The movie is fun but also a bit forgettable.
The price of success comes in being compared to your best work, and Pixar's "Toy Story" movies, "The Incredibles" and "Wall-E" are masterpieces of animated moviemaking.
So many of the company's films have been subversively edgy in their G-rated filmmaking, while retaining a keen ability to touch our hearts. "Monsters, Inc.," the 2001 predecessor to the new film, certainly fell into this category.
That movie scared up laughs while taking us into another world where monsters of all shapes and sizes entered magical doorways into children's bedrooms, becoming the bump in the night and the creature under the bed and ultimately eliciting little ones' screams of terror -- which provided the juice to power the electrical needs back home in the monsters' world.
Now that's inventive. The animators pulled it off in a way that was magical, and the storytellers balanced that conceit against the buddy-comedy teaming of the furry bear-like Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and one-eyed green imp Mike (with a frenetic Billy Crystal bouncing off Goodman's good humor).
Imagination like that, more than anything, is what's lacking in "Monsters University."
It feels like the people involved decided: Let's show how Sulley and Mike first met in college, and we'll throw in a little bit of "National Lampoon's Animal House" and so much of "Revenge of the Nerds" that the 1984 film's writers should receive a story credit.
The initial scene amuses as we meet a young Mike Wazowski, who's short on friends but long on his desire to become a top scarer at Monsters, Inc. His dream is to one day attend Monsters University, where all the best scarers go to college.
Thus begins a series of frat-party jokes, dorm-room drollery, cafeteria clowning and freshman farces as unscary know-it-all Mike and humongous but lazy and arrogant Sulley butt heads. Their feud intensifies as both are kicked out of the scaring program when their goofing off destroys a souvenir belonging to the dean (Helen Mirren) of the School of Scaring.
Mirren's monstrous Dean Hardscrabble -- a dark red dragon-like monster with millipede legs and red bat wings -- apparently knows how to hold a grudge. The Oscar-winner is left in the thankless role of a half-baked villain type as she watches ousted Mike and Sulley band together with a group of misfit dorm monsters, hoping to win the Scare Games and return to the School of Scaring.
It was called the Greek Games in "Revenge of the Nerds," and this picture follows that script to obvious conclusions.
At least "Monsters University" is frequently funny. It has to be to cover for the lack of cleverness in the story.
Rather than serving up gags that mix in with the story, the movie is an assembly line of sight gags (Sulley sheds, the misfit fraternity surprises with nerd-like skills, Mike kvetches). There is excellent artistry in the visuals, and Goodman and Crystal delight as a big guy-little guy team in the Laurel and Hardy vein.
But "assembly line" is not what anyone wants from Pixar. At least "Monsters University" is a small step up from the sequel "Cars 2," which felt like it was more about the merchandising than the yarn, but should we also expect diminishing returns from "Finding Dory," a 2015 sequel to "Finding Nemo," another beloved Pixar film?
The simple beauty of the animated short film "The Blue Umbrella" (strangers meet cute in a rainstorm) playing before the main attraction had my audience oohing and ahhing at the emotions and the originality of this gorgeous little movie.
I missed experiencing a similar lump in the throat that I thought "Monsters University" would induce and that makes Pixar movies memorable.
Animated movies coming this summer
Blockbusters such as "Iron Man 3," "Fast & Furious 6" and "Man of Steel" have dominated the summer-movie conversation so far. But for families with preteen children, the dates they mark on the calendar are for the animated movies, and this summer is packed.
Friday's opening of "Monsters University" delivers this year's Pixar animation entry and follows Memorial Day weekend's film "Epic," which has found a few fans. But this summer features a record six animated movies before the kids return to school -- with four more opening in July and August.
The remaining animated movies for summer 2013 are:
"Despicable Me 2" (July 3): There's Gru fighting a new super criminal, and there's the little girls, and there are those wonderfully funny little minions. All we need for a sequel, if you ask most kids ... is more minions!
"Turbo" (July 17): Could a garden snail win the Indianapolis 500? It could happen in this Dreamworks Animation flick, with Ryan Reynolds and Tulsa's Bill Hader among those providing voices.
"The Smurfs" (July 31): Don't be blue, your little Smurf friends return this summer to battle the evil Gargamel. Can you say Smurftastic?
"Planes" (Aug. 9): Disney's original animation division, Buena Vista, poses the question: How would you like it if we took the "Cars" concept and put it up in the air?
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
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