The Problem With ‘Monsters University’ And ‘Just Okay’ Pixar Movies

Enough people went to see “Monsters University” this weekend to call it an unquestionable success for Pixar. Ever since the animation studio began making feature films in 1995, all 14 of its full-length movies have debuted at the top of the box office, and “Monster University” kept that sterling record alive, banking the second best opening in Pixar’s history, behind “Toy Story 3.”

Though audiences responded enthusiastically via their wallets, the critical reception to “Monsters University” was more of a passing shrug than anything. It was pretty much a given that the “Monster Inc.” sequel would lack the originality of the first film since that world was already established, but with such a formulaic plot and character beats, is okay for a Pixar movie to be just okay?

Much of the problem with “Monsters University” comes from how little new ground it breaks. Yes, Mike and Sulley are put into a setting we haven’t seen them in before (college) with a new dynamic — they’re not friends (kinda), yet we know that they’re going to end up as best buds. The only thing standing in the way of their eventual jobs at “Monsters Inc.” is a pretty by-the-numbers series of contests they compete in with their new band of misfit friends, none of whom we get to know well enough to care about that much.

Even without a new world concept or original story line to pull us through, the true Pixar magic is usually found in the quiet character moments that lend more weight to otherwise secondary stories. With Mike and Sulley’s trajectory spoken for — we know where they’re headed — what we were missing as a Boo, or that trademark Pixar punch of emotion that is the glue for original concepts and sharply drawn characters. The Pixar movies that have fallen within the “okay” category (“Brave” and the “Cars” movies) all have unique worlds and characters, but without the emotional hook, they never reach the next level.

While the knee-jerk reaction to the okay-ness of “Monsters University” might be to decry sequels (that’s only a small problem, and a pretty subjective one) a Pixar movie isn’t a Pixar movie without an emotional in for the audience. Anyone who saw Andy drop his box of toys onto that little girl’s lawn can tell you that even sequels can get it absolutely right.

This may be an entirely unfair standard to hold the animation house to since “Monsters University” is still better than most movies that come out in a given year, especially animated ones, but Pixar’s record and “brain trust” creative process have proven again and again that they’re capable of so much more.

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