Monsters University isn't amazing. Yet it is bright, shiny, amusing, and charming, and after the disappointing Cars 2 and Brave, it's a relief to leave a Pixar movie feeling properly entertained. It wasn't always that way; the animation studio once delivered gems on a consistent basis. But Pixar spoiled us, conditioning audiences to expect greatness every time. That greatness has lately been in short supply, and even Monsters University is more of a consistent pleasure than a real achievement. But it'll do.
Pixar has made a few sequels, but Monsters University is their first prequel, showing us how Monsters, Inc. pals Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) first became friends in college. Since we need an actual story, they don't start off that way. Attending Monsters University's prestigious scare program—which will hopefully open the door to jobs at the Monsters, Inc. facility—the bookish, nerdy Mike instantly dislikes the lazy Sulley, who plans to coast on his family's scaring legacy rather than buckle down and study. Quickly kicked out of the program for somewhat convoluted reasons—again, so that we have a story—Mike and Sulley find themselves reluctantly having to team up with a bunch of loser outcasts to compete in the Scare Games against the university's super-cool monster fraternities and sororities. If Mike and Sulley's team wins, they'll be let back into the program; otherwise, they'll be forced to leave Monsters University.
Except for the tension between Mike and Sulley, who will learn how great they work together, Monsters University is sort of an animated version of The Internship: Two rejects join forces with uncool geeks to try to beat all the popular kids in a high-stakes competition. And while it's definitely better than that movie, Monsters University goes about its business in a pretty predictable way. It's not just the fact that the film pulls out the creaky old "big contest" plotline but that each round of the contest brings with it the prerequisite stages in Mike and Sulley's relationship development. (First round, they don't see eye-to-eye at all. Second round, they get a little closer. Third round, they're becoming friends somewhat. Fourth round, they have a falling-out...)
To be sure, that kind of competition narrative has a pleasing familiarity as well—you can just sit back and let director Dan Scanlon and his creative team do their work—and the movie is filled with jokes. (Of all of Pixar's films, Monsters, Inc. might be the studio's most purely funny movie. Gags, one-liners, and Crystal's Borscht Belt shtick are the emphasis. That's not to say that the movie didn't have a lot of heart, too, but Monsters, Inc. is the adorable, drooling puppy of the Pixar canon: It's sappy and cute, and it just wants you to love it no matter how dopey it can be.) Monsters University may not be quite the joke machine that its predecessor was, but the rat-a-tat delivery is the same. And the laughs come from everywhere, whether it's poking fun at college-movie conventions or mining the humor of the bizarre losers who have attached themselves to Mike and Sulley. (The hippie-ish Art, voiced by Charlie Day, may get the single best laugh in the movie based on a seemingly throwaway line that, if this was a live-action film, you'd swear was improvised on the set.)
With all the gags and zingers flying around, what you don't get enough of is a really strong emotional connection to Mike and Sulley. And that's a shame because Monsters University starts off with some potentially potent material. In a flashback to Mike's grade-school days, we see him as a sweet little dweeb who has a life-altering experience visiting Monsters, Inc. on a school trip, deciding that this is what he wants to do when he grows up—even though everybody around him agrees he's not scary enough to frighten the sleeping children of the human world. Monsters University means to be a story about how hardworking, untalented Mike clashes with the naturally frightening but undisciplined Sulley, and there's definitely some affecting moments between them. But the film tends to be more about its series of elaborate scare competitions than it is about these two guys' shifting dynamic. That's not a deal-breaker: The film is so consistently likable and pretty that you won't mind that much. But you'll notice. Pixar trained us to expect a little magic. Nowadays, we're just grateful when one of their films is good enough.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.