A college-centric prequel to Monsters Inc., Monsters University is unfortunate proof that the animation studio previously known for its brains is now resting a little too heavily on its nominal brawn. Monsters Inc.'s success came from the imaginative land of Monstropolis, evoking a sense of place through quotidian and nuanced details of urban life and an industrial workplace. Instead of merely relying on a previously created world, this origin story envisions the loveable monsters as freshmen undergrads, allowing storyboard artist turned director Dan Scanlon to reintroduce the central characters while still creating a new, meticulously detailed campus setting. The college grounds are dappled with gothic-spired buildings, hacky-sacking students, and aptly annoying orientation leaders, and the animators approach the milieu with an acknowledging, whimsical clarity on which Pixar prides itself. Where Monsters University or: How Pixar Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Formula stumbles, though, is the lack of originality it exhibits in its stale storytelling.
The film is primarily seen through the eye of diminutive Mike Wazowski (voiced again by Billy Crystal), a green ball of sass who's yearned to be a "scarer" ever since a grade-school trip to the familiar factory where screams from children are turned into energy. What he lacks in stature he compensates for in moxie and idealism, and Mike is set on becoming a scarer despite being told by school bullies that he—more goofy than grotesque in appearance—doesn't belong on the scare floor. James P. Sullivan, a.k.a. Sulley (voiced by John Goodman, the deepest-voiced freshman of all time), on the other hand, is a braggadocious beast from the illustrious Sullivan family of scarers and, given his imposing figure and naturally loud roar, he looks the role. It's an uninspired, if expected, dichotomous setup of rivalry, pinning Mike's book smarts (he's read all the Scare Theory he can get his claws on) versus Sulley's inherited talents ("You don't need to study scaring. You just need to do it," Sulley says, sounding a bit like a naïve art-school brat).
After a scrappy fight between Mike and Sulley during the final exam of Scaring 101, which results in the destruction of a precious souvenir owned by the frigid Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), the twosome are kicked out of the program and forced to switch their major to Scare Can Manufacturing. Grasping at a chance for redemption and re-entrance into the scaring program, Mike signs up for the Greek Council's Scare Games ("A super intense scaring competition," the horned, letter-jacket-wearing meathead organizer shouts). Mike enlists in the tournament with the only fraternity available, the oddball-filled Oozma Kappa (the nebbish clans acronym, "OK," lends an amusing, if eventually tiresome, visual gag) and reluctantly allows former nemesis Sulley to join. Mike brazenly agrees to an ultimatum with Dean Hardscabble: If his team wins they'll all gain admittance to the scaring program, and if they lose Mike and Sulley will be expelled from the university.
The Scare Games—overly reminiscent of certain tournaments for famous young wizards—occupies more than the second half of the film's overlong, nearly two-hour runtime; from here, writer-director Scanlon and two co-writers unimaginatively layer on event after event, eschewing innovative construction in favor of a predictable and tediously structured run toward the finish line as the underdogs consistently scrape by each challenge. Their main foes, unsurprisingly, are preppy, popped-collar alpha monsters and a hardly present sorority (a regressive step since Pixar released the female-driven Brave just a year ago). Monsters University refreshingly picks up some steam in the home stretch, showing a glimmer of the original's cleverness as Mike and Sulley must elicit true horror to scare a more mature audience; the joy of this set piece, however, is still buried under thematic backlogging, as the Aesopian morality about cherishing uniqueness, playing off individual strengths, and overcoming failures through hard work are pressed on even harder.
Despite Monsters University's candy-colored, eye-popping visuals, the sensibility feels off: The plot is more creaky than creative and the humor more forced than embedded, leaving the audience to choke on dust instead of laughs. As an immense fan of Monsters Inc., the recycled callbacks (Randall's exclamation that he'll never lose to Sulley again, Randall's dorm room poster touting "The winds of change," similar workout routine montages, and the desensitization of angsty, unscareable teenagers) are appreciated, but the original film possessed a seemingly effortless charm that doesn't translate here. What's most troubling is that Pixar is now borrowing from other franchises: Revenge of the Nerds by way of Hogwarts, Monsters University adheres to—instead of paying homage to—uncomfortably typical tropes, opting for regurgitation over subversion. Lacking in Pixar's trademark sly wit and thematic maturity, the film is unfortunately representative of the once-peerless animation studio's further slide toward the creation of merchandising over magic.