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Familiar friends return in mediocre ‘Monsters University’

It’s a good thing that bad Pixar is, at worst, just mediocre. Which means a bad Pixar movie is still an important rite in American movies. The reason is simple: American families need Pixar films. They need G-rated computer-animated features to which they can take the kids – ALL the kids – in perfect confidence.

Which is going to make the newest Pixar “Monsters University,” a place to go and a reliable thing to do for two hours (a delightful “Red Balloonish” Pixar short called “The Blue Umbrella” precedes it) rather than a great American movie occasion the way “Wall-E,” “Up” and the “Toy Story” movies were.

It is, as is widely known, the first Disney/Pixar “prequel,” i.e. a story preceding one we already know. That’s the story in “Monsters Inc.” about the friendship of little green, egg-shaped, one-eyed Mike and Jimmy (Sulley), the hairy, oversized, polka-dotted Sasquatch stand-in who is his devoted pal. They’re voiced by Billy Crystal, in his best cab driver’s yammer, and John Goodman, in his best genial, chuckling, stoner’s drawl.

They’ve come to Monsters University, the place where all the best ambitious monsters go. Which means, we’re told, it’s a major step up from “Fear Tech.”

Mike wants nothing more than to study hard and become an honest-to-Pete lifetime “scarer.” Which means he wants to go to the university’s hallowed College of Scaring.

Jimmy’s family, you see, has already become a legend at Monsters U.’s Scaring School. His dad, Bill, was the most legendary scarer of them all, which makes Jimmy what we toxic humans call a major league legacy admission.

What follows, for the kiddies no less, is a kind of monsters’ nightmare fantasy of college life at its worst, full of cliques (lots of exclusionary fraternities and sororities), elites, losers, mean Draconian deans, parties from which losers are left out, mascots from other schools to be stolen and all manner of campus high jinks and contest rituals which are pursued as if they are the be-all and end-all of campus life as students know it.

It is, in other words, the worst kind of teen movie high school, bumped up to college level for preteen cartoon purposes. Unfortunately, though, there is no John Belushi or Bill Murray at this school to, uh, indicate the interesting alternatives offered by hapless individualism and a well-developed sense of irony.

Mike – who is hopelessly un-scary – dutifully studies everything there is to know about scaring those toxic beings known as humans, especially little kids. Jimmy doesn’t need to because, well, he’s big and scary and has a monster’s roar that could get any human’s terrified attention.

That means most of the movie is spent treating learning and indeed knowledge as a joke which, of course, all of us healthy right-thinking Americans thoroughly agree with, right? Somewhere in the great beyond, I think, conservative fantasist Walt Disney himself might choke a little bit on that fantasy. Nowhere in this movie is there even a joking Disney cartoon representation of the idea that maybe, just maybe, learning is the whole point of being alive, even for monsters. (Thank you Walt Disney wherever you are, for once giving us kids “Nature’s Half Acre” and “The Living Desert.”)

Needless to say, the movie can’t let things end that way. It all turns out at the end that the virtues of study and hard work are affirmed for the BIG CORPORATE WORLD OUT THERE and the monsters we’ve supposedly come to know and love can become pals and successful besides.

It’s all, as I said, a wee bit monstrous in a certain way if you look at it as a kid’s indoctrination in future university and corporate life. Some instructional residue is likely to be left within them somewhere, after all.

But hey, you’ve got main characters voiced by Crystal and Goodman. And Helen Mirren does the voice of the frosty Scare College dean, a many-legged caterpillar with large, dark bat wings. Steve Buscemi is around a lot at the beginning as Mike’s loser pal. Then he suffers the fate of all losers even though he gets into the “right” fraternity. He spends most of the rest of the movie on the cutting room floor.

Nathan Fillion voices the smug president of the campus’ “right” fraternity, the one full of monsters who just know they’re going to win the traditional “Greek” student scaring contest.

Which comes down to a final scare-off between him and Mike and....

There are two or three lessons beyond that, too.

All of it, no doubt, can’t help but be entertaining for innocent onlookers on the most basic and least demanding level. I’m refraining from using the word “lame” here, but if you listen to everyone as they exit the theater, the odds are 20-to-1 the adjective will present itself at some point.

It’s a place, then, for families to be, rather than something wonderful from Pixar for families to see.

The trouble with setting high standards is that it’s uncommonly obvious when you can’t meet them – especially when you can’t even come close.


Two and a half stars (Out of four)

Voices of: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Nathan Fillion

Director: Dan Scanlon

Running time: 110 minutes

Rating: G.

The Lowdown: “Monsters Inc.” prequel finds the two monster pals studying to be career “scarers” at Monsters U.