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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 22, 2014

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Mike and Sulley are back in "Monsters University," now playing.
Mike and Sulley are back in "Monsters University," now playing.

Pixar's "Monsters University" graduates magna cum laughter

It’s not quite fair to say that Pixar is currently on a losing streak … but Pixar’s on a bit of a losing streak. "Cars 2" was the first feature in the studio’s history to fail to get a Best Animated Feature nomination. It was also the first Pixar feature to feel like a movie for kids. "Brave" was better, but it wasn’t exactly a gleaming return to form, and the behind-the-scenes creative disputes involving Brenda Chapman, the film’s original director, made it seem all the more like Pixar’s shining lamplight of quality was starting to flicker.

At the same time, it doesn’t feel right to call these past two films a losing streak because these movies aren’t terrible or even simply bad. They’re just okay. But after over a decade of creating groundbreaking, emotionally complex stories that satisfied audiences young and old, mediocrity feels like a massive disappointment.

As a result, Pixar is going back to the drawing board for their 14th film. 2001’s drawing board to be precise, as they make a prequel to one of their earliest entries, "Monsters Inc." "Monsters University" still won’t qualify as one of their finest features, but it might be up there with some of their funniest.

Billy Crystal and John Goodman (he’s everywhere!) return to their roles as Mike Wazowski and Sulley. The boys are in college this time around, both aspiring scare students though from far different backgrounds. Sulley is the son of a famous MU alum and plans to glide his way through school; Mike is a book fiend, hoping to study his way into achieving his childhood dream of becoming a famous scarer (John Krasinski briefly voices his idol).

The two predictably clash at first, eventually breaking their chilly professor’s (Helen Mirren, voicing a creepy flying centipede) treasured scare tank and getting kicked out of the scare program. Their only hope to get back into the school is to win a Greek life scaring contest held by the frats and sororities on campus. The snootiest of the bunch, Roar Omega Roar – led by Nathan Fillion of "Firefly" and "Castle" – rejects the duo, forcing Mike and Sulley to team up with the ragtag misfits of Oozma Kappa.

I completely understand if you just read that plot synopsis and rolled your eyes. Yes, the "underdog slobs vs. snobs" plot is not exactly plunging the depths of originality, especially if we’re doing it in an educational setting.

"Monsters University" earns a passing grade, however, because it fills its standard-issue story with plenty of endearing, earnest characters and hilarious collegiate antics. Crystal and Goodman still make for an entertaining duo, and their Oozma Kappa brothers ­– ranging from the hippie-ish Art (Charlie Day) to Don, a middle-aged salesman (Joel Murray) – are constantly amusing company. Pixar always manages to find the perfect voices for their characters as well. They’re never showy; they’re just right.

It might take a bit for the film to get its comedic legs under it, but when it does, it delivers some of Pixar’s funniest material since Mr. Tortilla Head in "Toy Story 3," sometimes with something as simple as a perfect facial expression.

Maybe it’s because I’m a recent graduate myself, but the college-themed jokes and setting – brought to vibrant life by Pixar's typically gorgeous and detailed animation – hit just the right spot. From Randy Newman’s score fueled by marching band and drumline numbers to the first tour of the university, complete with plentiful instructional packets and overly chipper RAs, I was happily on board.

The film never quite reaches the emotional grace notes of the studio’s best (to be fair, the first ten minutes of "Up" are going to be near impossible to beat). A late turn of events does deliver a surprisingly heavy message – that sometimes, despite all your efforts, your dreams and goals can stay out of reach – for a kids movie. But even with that mildly powerful realization, "Monsters University" is still a light affair, focused mostly on sheer entertainment. Pixar's breezier efforts, however, are still more satisfying than the bland, hyper-kinetic animated features typically churned out by other animation studios.

If it was a college class, it would be the fun easy A class that last-semester seniors would happily take and probably show up for. Probably.

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