The Pixar box-office hit streak is in no real jeopardy of coming to an end any time soon. But on the evidence of the computer animation studio’s latest cartoon, “Monsters University” (not to mention its two previous films, “Cars 2” and “Brave”), the studio’s so-called “brain trust” is beginning to run thin in the ideas department.
When sequels and prequels start dotting a cartoon studio’s production schedule, you know that either there is less trust in the original ideas folks are coming up with — or they aren’t coming up with any.
“Monster University” is a prequel to Pixar’s 2001 smash hit (and one of my personal favorites) “Monsters, Inc.” In that, you’ll recall, the animators brazenly invaded the bedrooms and dream lives of children to get to the bottom of those monsters lurking everywhere.
Turns out those monsters that jump from closets are on a mission to collect screams to power their very existence in Monstropolis. An energy crisis — kids are getting harder to scare — calls for heroic efforts on the part of a big blue monster named Sully (voiced by John Goldman) and best pal Mike Waznowski (Billy Crystal), a green eyeball with arms, legs and an eyelid.
The new film journeys back in time to their adversarial meeting at Monsters University where both are studying to be professional Scarers. Sully is deemed sure-fire material — he comes from a long time of Scarers — while Mike is … well, weird but not really frightening.
And that’s pretty much the movie — an ill-advised competition rather than collaboration between these two (still voiced by Goldman and Crystal) that nearly winds up costing them their goals until they discover the values of teamwork.
Dan Scanlon, a long time Pixar storyboard artist and the writer-director of the life-action film “Tracy” (2009), is aboard as a debuting animation feature director, working on a story and screenplay he wrote with long time cartoon writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird.
Scanlon & Co. tease out several laughs but those great Pixar sequences, such as the original movie’s roller-coaster chase involving hundreds of doors on an endless conveyor belt that loops through the Monstropolis power plant, escape them.
Campus life especially in the misfit fraternity of Oozma Kappas — the letters on their pullovers read OK — provide a few giggles. Yet you’ve been here before with oddly shaped and colored monsters (none scary enough to move the rating needle past G) and the sign outside the plant that reads “We Scare Because We Care.”
Funny the first time but not the second.
Why Pixar went to this well so soon — or at all — is hard to understand. It’s not the kind of thing that works twice since the gimmick, clever as it is, doesn’t bear repeating.
All the great notions generated a decade ago — such as the monsters being more terrified of the “toxic” kids than the kids are of them or the child that finds her way into the Monsters’ own lair — are done and done.
A bit of fun comes from a new character, the formidable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) — she’s designed like a flying centipede crossed with the wicked Queen from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”— but the dean, like much of Monsters U., borrows weakly from Harry Potter and his school of dark arts.
In the past, Pixar cartoons worked on two levels, entertaining youngsters while amusing adults with a whole other set of gags and visual/verbal references. That’s not happening in “Monster University.”
At a draggy 103 minutes, the film may tire adults although youngsters especially those who’ve never seen “Monsters, Inc.” may enjoy themselves.
Pixar’s CG artistry remains the best in the business, however. Plus Randy Newman supplies a jaunty musical score although some passages feel like they might have been arranged for MU’s marching band.
Opens: June 21, 2013 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Pixar Animation Studios
Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean P. Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina
Director: Dan Scanlon
Screenwriters: Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird, Dan Scanion
Producer: Kori Rae
Executive producers: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
Production designer: Ricky Nierva
Music: Randy Newman
Story supervisors: Kelsey Mann, Jason Katz
Editor: Greg Snyder
G rating, 103 minutes