By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Let's agree from the start that it's practically impossible for Pixar to make a bad animated movie. There's simply too much talent there, and too much Disney money supporting it, to result in junk.
But there's a point at which creative security can become complacency, and that's where Pixar finds itself with Monsters University, which isn't a bad movie at all. But it's disappointing. The movie is mostly fun and ultimately disposable, which is a letdown after Pixar's previous greatness. On the Pixar curve, a B grade doesn't pass.
It can be argued that the slide began with Cars 2 and Brave, a needless sequel and a standard princess tale. Those are defining phrases that would be unthinkable for Pixar in its heyday, when aspirations were everything, originality was paramount and the expected was artfully avoided.
Monsters University is simply a safe investment for Disney. It brings back beloved characters that sold lots of ancillary products a dozen years ago, so those plush toys, sheets and video games are worn out or tossed out and ready for replacement. Kids clamor to see anything that's a cartoon and heavily marketed, which Disney does best. And since 3-D adds a few bucks per ticket that weren't available to the original, a sequel is a no-brainer.
Which would all be fine if Monsters University were as thematically fresh and uniquely relatable as Monsters, Inc. Nearly everyone deals with nighttime fears, the imaginary creatures under the bed or in the closet, first as a child then as a parent comforting one. Monsters, Inc. brilliantly paired that idea with a reason for it, a sharply designed satire of assembly line production.
Monsters University is a prequel without such subtext, a college campus comedy that with a few tweaks could star human beings. Geeky-sweet freshmen struggle to make grades, fit in with snooty upperclassmen undeserving of their company and win over administrators who don't believe in them. It's Revenge of the Nerds with tentacles and fangs. Expertly drawn and competently voiced, yet familiar to a fault.
Billy Crystal returns to crack wise for Mike Wazowski, the eyeball who dreams of earning a degree in scare tactics. John Goodman is back as "Sulley" Sullivan, who figures he'll coast through college on his father's legacy as a scarer. Their verbal chemistry is intact and inspired by Helen Mirren's haughty Dean Hardscrabble, the movie's best new creature, sporting bat wings and centipede legs.
There's sweetness and hard feelings, silly puns and surprising seriousness, as Monsters University smoothly does what's expected. Pixar used to focus on doing something more but hasn't in a while. And with a Finding Nemo sequel on the horizon, that's a lost skill worth recovering.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.