In the early days of Pixar, the company's use of computer-generated animation was ahead of its time. When that novelty wore off, it became progressive in other ways. With the thematic depth and layered humor that carried it through an unprecedented run of universally beloved hits, Pixar supplanted Steven Spielberg as the preeminent source of smart popular cinema, even coming close to outdoing Disney's decade-spanning animated legacy with its complex range of characters. Then Disney bought Pixar, and the distinctly post-modern Pixar touch slowly turned into a modern Disney one.
Once upon a time, in a land that now looks so magical it could have been dreamed up, Pixar carried the virtues of an independent studio that delivered brainy alternatives to simplistic studio-produced animation. Whether exploring the end of humanity in "Wall-E" or the frustrations of the nuclear family in "The Incredibles," Pixar assailed society's mythologies and fears within a pop culture context in a fashion that at times almost felt subversive. By contrast, "Monsters University," the latest Pixar offering, charms in an excessively familiar way that illustrates a troublesome eventuality: Pixar has lost its edge.
As it has devolved into less of a disruptive force, the company got safe. Two years ago, "Cars 2" could have been written off as an anomaly (because "Cars" was a weak Pixar effort anyway), but then came last year's "Brave," an innocuous children's fairy tale that carried plenty of wholesome value in its unconventionally assertive princess but lacked the searing wit and complex subtext associated with most previous efforts.
Well, they say three makes a trend. "Monsters University," a prequel to the supremely imaginative "Monsters Inc.," fills in the background of those characters with a tame, cheery origin story that lacks the original's crackling wit, not to mention its stealthy satire of corporate bureaucracy. Capably directed by Dan Scanlon, "Monsters University" delivers a very basic, factory-certified animated adventure.
And yet it made me laugh. As a fan of the one-eyed scare strategist Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and furry blue beast Sully (John Goodman), I eagerly gawked at the characters' youthful iterations along with the rest of the crowd at the preview screening I attended over the weekend, where diehard "Monsters Inc." fans quoted the original to each other moments before the lights went down. We know that one day these guys will team up to form the best monsters in the business of scaring children at night and collecting the energy of their screams to power their alternate world. Their journey is secondary. The movie reaches its most lovable highs in the opening scene, when an adorable middle school version of Mike goes on a field trip to Monsters Inc. and steals his way behind one of the dimension-crossing doors that lead to the bedrooms of sleeping children to watch an adult monster at work.
Though an object of derision for his taller classmates, pipsqueak Mike has greater ambition, and suddenly the movie flashes forward several years to find him off to Monsters University in pursuit of his dream. That's when "Monsters University" slows down to become a rather pedestrian college comedy that establishes the odd couple pairing of Mike and Sully, whose dad is apparently a legendary monster whose status leads his arrogant son to assume he's already got it made. Neither Mike nor Sully manages to impress their stone-faced dean (Helen Mirren) -- Mike's not scary and Sully lacks technique -- so after a first-semester final goes sour for both, they're out of the scare program for good. Naturally, the duo figure out a last minute shot at regaining their pride, hesitantly joining forces with the other less-than-scary college rejects to compete in the college's annual Scare Games in a desperate bid to reenter the program.