Sequels take something special and try to replicate it, a paradox that usually leads to the dismal likes of “The Hangover Part III.” You can’t photocopy uniqueness, but you can make money off the attempt, which is why all those roman numerals clutter up the nation’s multiplexes. As it proved with the “Toy Story” films, each better and more resonant than the last, Pixar is generally considered the exception to the rule. As it proved with “Cars 2,” the company’s also capable of stumbling.
“Monsters University” is better than “Cars 2” but not enough, and along with last year’s inspired but cluttered “Brave,” it offers unsettling evidence that Pixar’s Golden Age may be in the past. The movie is an astonishing work of digital artisanry — would we expect anything less from John Lasseter’s team of Soopa-Geniuses? — that tells an engaging but well-worn tale. If you’ve seen any college movie ever, from the silent comedy of “The Freshman” to “Back to School” to “Legally Blonde,” you’ll be familiar with the story beats and themes of fitting in while trying not to sell out.
It’ll all be new to your kids, though, and that’s very much the point. Please raise that rating to 4 stars for anyone under the age of 12 and get them to the theater posthaste. But part of the thrill of seeing a Pixar film as an adult, with or without attendant spawn, was knowing that you were getting something extra in the bargain: a work of sharper wit, wilder invention, richer playfulness, and deeper soul than even most grown-up films could muster. And that magic is gone, replaced by noisy high spirits and a plot that trundles along on predictable tracks.
Technically speaking, “Monsters University” is a prequel, the story of how Mike Wakowski (voiced once more by Billy Crystal), the cheery green eyeball with legs, met big, blue, fuzzy Sulley (John Goodman) at college. For the uninitiated, their monster universe parallels our own and is powered by the energy provided by children’s screams — yes, it is a twisted concept — which the characters harvest by entering magic doors into kids’ bedrooms and scaring up the shrieks.
Monsters University (I have to imagine it’s in the same intramural league as Hogwarts) is where young monsters learn the art of scaring, and the movie plunges fearlessly into the clichés of the collegiate genre: marching-band music and “Gaudeamus Igitur” on the soundtrack, ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls, the cliques, the freaks, the Greeks. Young Mike is a grind and teen Sulley is a party dude; the former won’t face up to the fact that he’s too cute to be scary, while the latter coasts on his size, roar, and legacy as the son of a top-ranked Scarer.
Visually packed to the rafters, “Monsters University” has something to look at in every frame, mostly monsters of all colors, shapes, and textures. The fearsome dean is the film’s most inspired creation: Half dragon and half scuttling centipede, she speaks with the icy purr of Helen Mirren. Yet when Mike and Sulley join the misfit Oozma Kappa, their frat brothers are a flat, not terribly interesting crew: babyish Squishy (Peter Sohn), retiree Don (Joel Murray), two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes and Dave Foley). The one character that has Pixar promise is the flaky Art (Charlie Day) — he’s this movie’s Zonker — but in the end he isn’t given enough to do.
The plot of “Monsters University” hangs on the Scare Games, in which the various frats compete for the biggest screams and which provide the movie with its set-piece action scenes. A race down a dark corridor filled with glowing, ricocheting pink sea urchins (whatever body part gets hit puffs up like a balloon) is probably the high point, in part because it’s conceptually straightforward yet filled with delightful, unexpected gags. That’s the Pixar formula — simple ideas, freshly imagined details — that this movie never manages to master.
Blame the script, written by director Dan Scanlon with Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson and over-reliant on stock characters and dialogue that’s fine only by the standards of family movies. True, the life lessons come hard and heavy in the final third of “Monsters University,” and the story line goes further into confronting failure and the consequences of not playing fair than most kid flicks dare. Let me repeat: This is not a bad movie, and to small children it will be a very good one. But it is closer to average than one would wish from the company that gave us “Up,” “Wall-E,” “The Incredibles,” and “Toy Story 3,” all films with depths that flatter older viewers and challenge the young. When the Oozma Kappas band together for their chant “We’re OK! We’re OK!,” don’t be surprised if you find yourself sighing in agreement.