**1/2 (out of four)
Remember how you felt watching “The Incredibles” or “Ratatouille” or, most recently in the Pixar canon, “Toy Story 3”? Those movies are funny and moving. You delight in their universe and are sad to leave.
Now, for the third consecutive year (following “Cars 2” and “Brave”), Pixar phones it in with “Monsters University,” the, uh, long-awaited prequel to 2001's cute “Monsters Inc.” Answering the much-discussed question, “Where did Sully and Mike do undergraduate work before their scaring career?” “MU” returns to the days when Mike (Billy Crystal) still had a retainer and Sully (John Goodman) was an arrogant slacker planning to coast through scaring school on his father's legacy. No dice! Like something out of “Revenge of the Nerds”—in fact, exactly like that—Mike and Sully wind up joining forces with the university's geekiest fraternity to battle the cool kids in the Scare Games, a competition that will determine their fate at the school.
Despite its shocking lack of originality, the gorgeously animated “MU” has its moments. In fact, after the affecting opening in which adolescent, friendless Mike gets his first glimpse of celeb scarers at Monsters Inc., I wrote “totally unnecessary but totally charming” in my notes, hoping that description would apply. The movie is mostly just unnecessary, involving some forgettable supporting assistants and foes and, of course, a cold-hearted dean with a British accent (voiced by Helen Mirren).
Although it has the typical follow-your-dreams-and-be-proud-of-yourself narrative, “Monsters University” scores points with Mike's honorable determination and need to reconcile ambition with reality. (The film, fortunately, is nowhere near as corny as Martin Lawrence and Raven-Symone's “College Road Trip.”) Mike really wants to be a scarer, despite looking like Gumby lost a glass eye because it walked away. Once upon a time, this would have allowed Pixar to tickle its imagination and ours, but “Monsters University” is as dully straightforward as it gets.
I spent much of the movie distracted, which did allow me to realize—and I'm not sure how this didn't occur to me before—that this franchise pairs “Big Lebowski” stars Goodman and Steve Buscemi (as Mike's roommate/future nemesis Randall). Admittedly, that increased my enjoyment of an early moment when Mike's warned not to step over a line; if only it were Sully screaming the warning.
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