Terrorizing children in their bedrooms remains the existential concern of the toothy blobs, hams, and pom-pom-furred Wild Things that populate Monsters movies, many of whom look like gummy nothings long stuck to the bottom of Pixar's junk drawer. Their very lives depend upon coaxing night-screams from human kids, a premise rich enough for Seuss or Borges. Is it too much to ask, then, that a film like Monsters University on occasion explore or re-create the shivery fear and pleasure of imaginative childhood anxieties? That the hundreds of technicians and story-wranglers involved in this brilliantly engineered, impossibly expensive, occasionally hilarious riot of gags and chases and pull-hard-on-your-bootstraps moralizing might, just once, glance up against the wonder and artistry and revelatory honesty of Maurice Sendak's wild rumpus — or even The Incredibles?
Perhaps that is too much to demand from the Disney-owned, post-Cars 2 Pixar. The Emeryville, California, Mac jockeys still bang out superior kids' fare, with un-cloying sentiment, hurly-burly that's less exhausting than what the Dreamworks folks muster, all distinguished by touches of library-book prestigiousness and Looney Tunes anarchy. And Brave even dared some rare mother/daughter thematic complexity between all the kilts-and-asses humor. But as with the Cars pictures, Monsters University feels not like the work of artists eager to express something but like that of likable pros whose existence depends on getting a rise out the kids. It's like the scares Sully and Mike spring on those sleeping tykes: technically impressive but a job un-anchored to anything more meaningful.
Even when Pixar isn't aspiring to an idea, it has a way with genre. This time out, we see the college days of the monsters of Monsters Inc., a backstory no one was demanding but that is at least diverting, especially once the film settles into a Revenge of the Nerds-style showdown between frats. That takes the better part of an hour to get to, unfortunately, and much of that buildup is dire. The writers' idea of college life is right out of Happy Days, with BMOCs and mascot-kidnapping, which leads to the least-rousing university chase scene since Indiana Jones harumphed that motorcycle into the campus library. (A dream worth dreaming: The Pixar crew challenges themselves to craft an entire movie in which no character ever has to climb onto or off of some rapidly moving vehicle or animal.)
There's a relentless, grating sunniness to these scenes, as Mike (the baby-vegetable eye-stalk voiced by Billy Crystal) carries on and on about how he's going to measure up to the school's legacy by becoming the best scary monster he can be. Schweeny Mike runs afoul of bruising Sully (voiced by John Goodman), a layabout jock not invested in that legacy because he is a legacy — the son of a distinguished (and scary) alum. The demands of prequel plotting eventually pair these two up, just in time for a the usual so-crazy-it-just-might-work effort to show up a sour dean — and not get kicked out of school.
Mercifully, Crystal only gets one scene in his needy comic-motormouth mode, glad-handing a crowd like he's in some animated outtake from Mr. Saturday Night. Like so many animated leads since The Little Mermaid, his Mike wants the one thing he wants with the purest of passions — but since that one thing is just to ace the "scare class" that he already assumes he will ace, there's nothing especially compelling about him. Ariel ached to be part of a world that couldn't understand her; Mike just wants to be the best at something he has to work hard at. Her story is alive with universal longing; his has all the drama of the essays students write when applying to college.
Sullivan, the blue-fuzzed bear-like beast, is at least funny, thanks to Goodman's whisker-fuzzed bear-like voice. Their dynamic, once established too late in the movie, has some comic energy: Mike works hard but isn't scary; lazy Sullivan is scary but underachieving. Eventually, they find themselves leading the school's geekiest frat in an all-or-nothing scare competition, and the movie at last erupts with life. Their brothers are one-joke characters, but the jokes are funny, the work-hard messages reasonably inspiring, and there's nothing that Pixar handles more adeptly than goofball team-building. The big competition builds to exactly the climax you're expecting — and then, remarkably, Monsters University continues on, suddenly moody and appreciably less antic, skeptical of its own easy victory. For its last 10 minutes, the movie feels like the work of the daring crew behind Wall-E and Ratatouille, and the moral they offer up takes the piss out of the wish-on-a-star fantasizing that made Disney Disney. The monsters learn that just being born doesn't make them special, but that specialness comes with perseverance — with the labor of shaping yourself into something more than what you started as. That's not easy. Monsters University, in its noisome way, exemplifies this by just barely managing to do so itself.