Film review: Monsters University (U)

Imperfect Pixar saved by an eye for detail

If it were any other studio you'd groan at the prospect: another sequel, another opportunity to exploit the brand name. But Pixar isn't any other studio, or any other brand name. Pixar has tripped across heights of invention and comic daring and narrative brilliance that most film-makers don't manage once, let alone time after time.

Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, the Toy Story trilogy – name your favourite – these aren't just great digimations, they're great movies, period. No wonder Disney jumped on board as partner. True, there have been so-so outings amid this roll of honour. I didn't quite love Ratatouille, and Cars showed signs of metal fatigue. Even genius doesn't get it right every time.

Cars also had a sequel, which remains for me unique in the Pixar canon: it's the one I can't remember a thing about. Was it that bad? Monsters University isn't so much a sequel as a prequel to Monsters, Inc., from 2001. The good news is that it's worthy of its predecessor, and comes garlanded with that unfakeable mixture of charm and wit.

The less good news is that it doesn't really try to be different from your average campus comedy. Aside from the fact that the students are all, er, monsters, it depends on familiar tropes of college life and manners, and for a moral it hymns the virtues of teamwork over self-promotion. It's just faintly disappointing to watch a Pixar film where you not only keep up with the drift, you also anticipate it.

The film sends us back to Monstropolis, where the two friends of Monsters, Inc., Mike and Sulley, first met as college freshmen. Diligent, earnest Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) is a one-eyed, pear-shaped green blob who'll swot his way through uni, while James Sullivan (John Goodman) is a talented but indolent ball of fuzzy fur who'll coast on his august family name. Their ultimate goal is to secure a job on the "scare floor" of Monsters, Inc, the elite factory where they harvest the screams of terrified children to power the entire metropolis.

Following a run-in with the formidable college dean – a sort of dragon-cum-centipede voiced with icy authority by Helen Mirren – Mike and Sulley are compelled to enter the Scare Games, a contest among the college fraternities to decide who's the best scarer of them all. Unfortunately, they get landed with the lamest, squarest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa.

The idea is that Mike and Sulley start out as temperamental rivals – Sulley is initially co-opted by the arrogant Roar Omega Roar fraternity – before they learn how to use each other's strength in a common cause. The film has some difficulty establishing a rhythm, investing its energy in frenetic action sequences that whizz about like an escaped balloon. One part of the Scare Games involves trying to liberate a pennant in a library without disturbing the overseer, a short-sighted colossus that ejects offending noisemakers into the lake outside. It's inventive, it's just not that funny.

But eventually director Dan Scanlon and his co-screenwriters Daniel Gerson and Robert L Baird find the right tempo, and the setpieces begin to take hold. As ever with Pixar, the genius is in the detail. I loved the scene in which one of Mike's mates, a hopeless moon-faced creature called Squishy, is trying to conduct a solemn midnight ritual while, in the background, his loudly cheerful mom puts on the washing machine at ear-splitting volume. The same matron later plays chauffeur to Mike and co, and says she'll play some of her tunes for company while she waits to collect them; an abrupt blast of her in-car stereo indicates that her favourite listening is death metal.

Kids who come to the film without knowing Monsters, Inc. should take to it very happily; the action pours off the screen with irresistible momentum, and Pixar knows better than anyone how to match character and voice. Billy Crystal sounds about 30 years younger here – just right for Mike – and the uncertain toothy smile that sometimes cracks his Cyclopean face is heartbreaking. If the friendship between him and Sulley doesn't touch quite the depth of Woody and Buzz, or the pathos of WALL-E and EVE, it still finds warmth in the vocal duelling between Crystal and John Goodman.

I liked the waking-up scene in which Mike, half-asleep on the lower bunk, has been resting his head dreamily in Sulley's hanging paw, both of them unknowing and then suddenly horrified as they emerge into consciousness. Yes, it's straight from Steve Martin and John Candy waking up in a motel bed together in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but you could call it a salute to greatness rather than a steal.

The film even has a little lesson about ambition. Mike wants more than anything to be scary, and dedicates himself obsessively to the task. Yet it's sometimes the case that the thing we want to be good at isn't the thing we're meant to be. It's not quite as harsh in its philosophy as The Incredibles, which basically argued that not everyone is special (so live with it). But for a comedy about college, the time in a young person's life when anything seems possible, Monsters University sounds a rather cautious, even wintry note. Maybe it's Pixar's acknowledgement of its own limits: great artists realising they can't be the greatest forever.