‘Monsters University’ Early Reviews: Is This Three Strikes in a Row for Pixar?

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
'Monsters University'
'Monsters University'

Pixar has long represented Hollywood's happiest marriage of art and commerce — a studio known for pumping out crowd-pleasing hits, massive profits, and oodles of awards. But lately, its squeaky clean is being sullied, and the upcoming animated sequel to "Monsters Inc." may not be of much help.

"Monsters University" is expected to be another box-office bonanza for Hollywood's most prestigious animation studio. However, there's one little fly in the ointment: The reviews haven't been up to the standards of Pixar's glory days, when "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," "Wall-E" and "Up" not only made money but also wowed critics.

The prequel, in which we meet young Sully (voice of John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) during their college days, is not being greeted with cheers, and some are wondering if Pixar is losing its Midas touch.

The film's most enthusiastic notice so far praises "the easy, ingratiating comic sensibility at play" (from Variety's Justin Chang). Chang details the film's impressive colors and texture, however, he leads off his review with the words, "Not even attempting to scale the heights of Pixar past, 'Monsters University' finds Disney’s toon studio operating at a pleasantly middling level of artistic achievement" – a sentiment echoed by other critics. "While Pixar’s recent output includes at least one underrated original ('Brave') and one undisputed triumph ('Toy Story 3'), the company’s increasing reliance on sequels and spinoffs bears out the idea that even Hollywood’s most reliable creative entities must resort to cannibalizing themselves sooner or later," Chang adds.

On the other end of the scale, Todd McCarthy at the Hollywood Reporter makes no secret of his disappointment with the movie, writing, "'Monsters University' almost feels like a film made to fill a slot in a release schedule rather than something that simply had to be made for its own organic reasons…A humdrum straight line of a film, 'Monsters University' never surprises, goes off in unexpected directions or throws you for a loop in the manner of the best Pixar stories."

And Eric Kohn at IndieWire reiterates a similar theme: "Once upon a time, in a land that now looks so magical it could have been dreamed up, Pixar carried the virtues of an independent studio that delivered brainy alternatives to simplistic studio-produced animation." He praises past Pixar efforts "Wall-E" and "The Incredibles" for assailing cultural beliefs and fears within a pop culture context "in a fashion that at times almost felt subversive." In contrast, Kohn says "Monsters University" offers little more than familiar charms – and in excess – stating blatantly, "Pixar has lost its edge."

A few less-than-good reviews might not seem like an issue for Pixar if it weren't for the fact this is the company's third movie in a row to disappoint critics. "Cars 2" was Pixar's poorest-reviewed film to date, earning a lowly 38 percent at review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes (which averaged 201 reviews of the movie). "Brave," which earned an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, fared considerably better, earning a 78 percent — still a far cry from "Wall-E" (96%), "The Incredibles" (97%), "Up" (98%), or "Toy Story 3" (99%).

Of course, Pixar and their corporate partners at Disney are most likely to begin worrying about bad reviews when it begins impacting the box office, and that doesn't seem to have happened yet. For all its negative press, "Cars 2" still grossed more than $191 million in the United States alone, and "Brave" fared even better, bringing in $237 million in America and becoming enough of an audience favorite that its red-headed heroine Merida was proclaimed a new Disney princess (though not without a certain amount of controversy).

Buzz among animation fans is strong for one of Pixar's works-in-progress, Pete Docter's "Inside Out."

But as a prequel to a movie that's a dozen years old, "Monsters University" could be the tipping point where Pixar finds if their brand is review-proof, and if the lack of buzz among serious film fans will begin to affect mainstream tastes.

"Monsters University" is due in theaters June 21.

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