I'm a big fan of Pixar films generally and Monsters, Inc. really left an impression with me. I loved the way the pastel hues and big googly eyes somehow found a way to make sly statements about the oil economy. Perhaps even more importantly, the movie respected its audience enough to go on wild, unpredictable tangents, trusting viewers to keep up.
It's hard not think back to how great Monsters, Inc was while watching its prequel Monsters University. For the most part this movie keeps the spirit of the original, kept afloat by superior voice acting, intermittent wit, and a superior art direction. As +Peter Maranci pointed out, even a mediocre Pixar movie is better than 90% of the movies out there.
The plot is basically what you'd expect if I told you this movie was the prequel for Monsters, Inc. You have the obligatory awkward first meeting of the main characters, a mismatched rivalry evolving into a grudging respect mixed with scattered 'oh-so-that's-why-he's-a-jerk' moments.
Michael "Mike" Wazowski has wanted to go to Monsters University since his first childhood trip to the Monsters, Inc. power plant "Scaring Floor." He's an earnest, eager student certain that hard work will win him his dream. During his first night at the college he runs into James P. "Sully" Sullivan, a big blue monster from a famous name. The basic conflict between the characters is nicely introduced, Mike has the brains but no actual talent to scare while Sully leans heavily on his storied pedigree and one-note (although terrifying) roar. Their rivalry lands them in hot-water with the University's Dean Hardscrabble. With both are ejected from the Scaring School, the unlikely partners have to work together to win an unlikely victory to get back into the Dean's good graces. It's plot-by-numbers and the whole enterprise starts to sag from about the second reel onward.
I think part of the problem is that this movie forgot the two things that made the original so watchable: anarchy and heart. Anarchy because Monsters, Inc keeps playing mischief with its own world's rules. The affable company president turns out to be in league with the despicable immoral chameleon. The assumption that contact with the children is fatal to monsters is proven false. The brilliant final chase scene constructs a high-energy tesseract where pursued and pursuers bound in and out of various bedrooms. The movie found just the right balance between bend and break.
Heart because at the center of it all is the friendship between Mike and Sully and the simply decency of Sully's protectiveness towards "Boo," the little girl at the center of Waternoose and Randy's schemes. No matter how goofy the movie got, the action developed out of the characters themselves. And the final scene of Sully reunited with Boo is one of the most heart-breakingly poignant moments in a studio famous for them.
In Monsters University everyone follows the rules, even as they arbitrarily break them. When we learn that Mike is not really that scary that basic dynamic follows him through the rest of the movie. Both Mike and Sully are competing to win some measure of recognition from the existing power structures in the movie, their classmates and the authority figure of Dean Hardscrabble. And when Sully does break the rules to get what he wants (rigging a scare simulator so Mike can win) he must confess his transgressions. Now, this makes sense on the character level because Sully is a fairly upstanding monster (once you get past the entitlement) but on another level its one more example of Monster University content to fit snuggly into expectations. This movie doesn't encourage dissent or free-thought, merely suggests that everyone has a role to play in the status quo.
Which wouldn't be so bad if this familiar story had dug deeper into the emotion of the story. Mike's story of the earnest loser was similar to one of my favorite movies of all time: Rushmore. But in Rushmore, all of Max's Fishcer striving is grounded in his pursuit of Rosemary Cross, his desire to be loved parallel to his need to be accepted by Rushmore Academy itself. Simply saying Mike has got to get into the "Scaring Department" is very sterile, and doesn't really raise the stakes. What happens if Mike doesn't get into the Scaring school? It appears he'll just have to sit through a lot of boring classes on his way to a comfortable middle class life. I'm sorry, but that doesn't seem like he stands to lose that much.
What if we had seen Mike's parents and they had attempted to join the college but had to drop out because they couldn't afford it? Or what if there was a love triangle between Mike and Sully and being in the Scaring Deparment was the perceived key to her heart? I'm not saying these tropes would have done the trick, but they would've put more stakes on the table. I'm sorry, I just couldn't be that invested in whether or not a character gets into one college school or the other without knowing more about why that was so important.
One last detail. The domed and tentacled School of Scaring building has a very strong resemblance to the Dread Lord of R'lyeh, a witty shout-out.