Dan Scanlon's "Monsters University" comes on strong with an impressive all-star voice cast, plus eye-popping, highly detailed 3-D animation that really does jump off the screen. (How the animators extract so much expression and life from mini-monster Mike's Cyclopean face is probably worth a book by itself.)
Yet, this belated prequel to Pixar's marvelous 2001 hit "Monsters, Inc." lacks a key element that gave its predecessor a beating heart. Little Boo, the squealing girl who awakens one night to find blue-furred Sullivan (John Goodman) and one-eyed cue-ball Mike (Billy Crystal) in her bedroom, is gone.
"Monsters University"★ ★ ½
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Sean Hayes, Joel Murray, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger, Bobby Moynihan
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated G. 107 minutes
And with her, the story's emotional core.
Presumably, Boo has yet to be born in the prequel "Monsters University," the story of when Mike met Sully.
Mike arrives at Monsters University full of hope and promise, having worked very hard to achieve his shot at higher education to become a trained, professional "scarer."
Sully arrives full of bombast and himself, the privileged son of a legendary MU graduate and pride of the campus' snottiest, most elite fraternity.
No love at first fright for these two opposites.
Mike works hard and struggles to keep up his scare studies because he's the unscariest student at the university.
Meanwhile, Sully barely makes an effort, relying on his natural talents and father's legacy to support him.
Mike can't get into any of the cool frats, so he joins Oozma Kappa, a group for outcasts, a collection of rather generic, pathetically needy students with names such as Squishy (Peter Sohn), Randy (Steve Buscemi), Don (Joel Murray), Terri (Sean Hayes) and Terry (Dave Foley).
The intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (a sinister Helen Mirren), a hybrid winged character seemingly inspired by both Disney and Harry Potter fantasy films, rules the academic roost here.
Every year, the Dean hosts "The Scare Games" to determine the most frightening of student monsters. The games become the final salvation for both Sully and Mike after the Dean kicks them out of the Scare major program.
If Sully and Mike can bury their differences (along with anything else needing burial), work together and win the games, they will be reinstated.
"Monsters University" ranks as a stronger, more engaging Pixar production than the under-fueled "Cars 2," but barely musters the octane power of "Cars." (Not surprising, Scanlon, the director here, also directed "Cars." The much better "Monsters, Inc." came from Peter Docter and David Silverman.)
Packed with cuteness and carefully rounded dramatic edges, "Monsters University" has clearly been pitched to the kiddie market.
None of the scary parts comes off as remotely scary, and potentially serious emo-moments give way to light, superficial drama of the sort that evaporates 10 minutes after the movie ends.
There are hard truths conveyed here: that natural talent must be improved upon or it will fail. That the hardest work may not be a suitable replacement for talent. That true friendship can be a byproduct of realigned dreams.
Mike also observes how the most frightening monsters use their differences, not their similarities, to succeed in generating scares, thereby verbalizing the movie's admirable theme of diversity as a strength.
Still, "Monsters University" suffers from comparisons to its superior original.
It just can't say Boo.
Note: "Monsters University" will be preceded by Saschka Unseld's amazing short film titled "The Blue Umbrella," a photo-realistic work so true to life, you'll swear it can't be animation.
But it is.
The story came to Unseld while walking on a rainy San Francisco street and finding a broken umbrella. It looked so sad that Unseld turned it into the main character for this short, which, by the way, ingeniously uses the city's architecture to inspire its unusual cast of characters. ★ ★ ★ ★