With every new Pixar feature released, the critics’ community responds with a list of the studio’s output. Beginning with their debut (1995’s Toy Story) and concluding with whatever their newest release may be, the regurgitation of this material can make for a wicked case of déjà-vu. But as of recent years, the one revered brand in contemporary cinema has become just that: a brand. Once the purveyors of expanding the cinematic terrain with breathtaking and perceptive animated features, one need not look further than their 2011 effort, Cars 2 to see the chinks in the armor. As disappointing as that film may have been, their follow-up, Brave may have just been more crushing. Like that film’s lead character’s hair, the film itself was untamed, opting for broad hysterics rather than anything substantive. The news that the studio would be moving forward with a sequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc did not bode well for the perception that Pixar has lost its touch.
Well, I’m happy to report that while Pixar may not have made the sort of instant classic in the same vein as Ratatouille , WALL-E, or Up, they’ve come to a happy medium – merging commercial intents with humanistic warmth and sharp comedic instincts.
Following Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) on their adventures through Monsters University possesses an immediate nostalgic glow. Perpetually delightful, Monsters University is a rich canvas of characterization, clearly defining its large ensemble through its own sense of wacky humor. While the multitude of writers on tow responsible for the film still adhere to some of the broad comedy that has defined much of Pixar’s recent output, they steadily establish each character through archetype – it’s a commendable decision given that it creates a rich character palette. With diverse and hilarious characters such as Charlie Day’s Art or Peter Sohn’s Squishy, there are rarely moments where the film hasn’t etched a smile on your face. Compounded by a familiar and well-constructed narrative, Monsters University shows a clear return to form for the leaders in animated cinema.
Almost to a fault, the studio’s late 2000s output has put all their prior and subsequent efforts under a microscope. As impressive and surprising as Monsters University may be, Pixar hits conventional thematic points that, for a studio that carved its name out of creating plots of originality, simply lacks punch. With Pixar’s rich wheelhouse of compelling ideas, from the wondrous imagery of a house hung on balloons flowing through the sky to the idea of a rat becoming a cook, Monsters University’s college-buddy film concept isn’t especially illuminating. It’s a flawless execution of ideas, to be sure, but one that fails to provoke imagination.