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Right off the bat, Monsters University, the prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc. is a strange proposition. Neither as effortlessly charming, surprising, or funny as the original, it inhabits the liminal space that all prequels inevitably fall into, falling prey to the same problem: that the past is rarely interesting when the future is a foregone conclusion. 


The original adventure, part bureaucratic satire, part high-concept culture clash comedy, was anchored by the affable friendship of its central monsters, monocular Mike (Billy Crystal) and regular joe-shmoe Sully (John Goodman). Monsters University is concerned with chronicling how this friendship came to be… and little else.


Since his earliest days, geeky Mike Wazowski has dreamed of being a world-class scarer for Monsters, Inc. Accepted into Monsters University, he enrolls in the prestigious Scare School, where he instantly clashes with James P. Sullivan, an arrogant jock from a famous scaring family. When their rivalry results in their expulsion from the program, the unlikely pair team up to compete in the Scare Games, a competition pitting the best frats and sororities against one another in tests of dexterity, bravery, and – you guessed it – fear factor. If they win, they’ll be re-accepted into the Scare School; if they fail, they must pack their bags and leave Monsters U… for good.


While their future selves will contend with world-ending peril, the morality of fear, and the fundamental nature of society and their role in it, Monsters University, for the majority of its length, aims significantly lower. Struggling for a consistent tone and a compelling narrative, it plays as a confused unofficial remake of Revenge of the Nerds, complete with frathouse highjinks, study montages, and an evil Dean (voiced by Helen Mirren).


The film’s intended audience is the most puzzling of its disparate elements: who exactly is the film for? Much of its satire plays into its university setting, but the jokes, word play, and slapstick are resolutely G-rated. Granted, the original film found success and cross-generational appeal in fairly adult concepts and situations; the character of Boo, the little girl trapped in the monster realm, went some way to bridging the original’s gap between content and tone. But Monsters University never finds a compromise that lands, relying on our existing affinity for the two protagonists to carry its drama, and the foregone knowledge that things will work out right in the end.


The film’s one concession is a shift late in its second act, which forms most of the fake-out climax (a clumsy trend Pixar is increasingly indulging). The realization that no matter how hard you try, you may not achieve your dreams – life, no matter what you’ve been raised to believe, is not entirely fair – is a bitter, soul-crushing rite of passage: one explicitly reserved for those transitioning from the realm of child to adulthood. This revelation is all to brief, however, and too lost in the nearly two-hour runtime to really make an impact.


That success doesn’t come easy – not in real life, and not for Mike and Sully – is a return to the emotionally honest kind of filmmaking that, in essence, Pixar made its name with – and an irony they would do well to remember.