It's been quite a while since I last saw Monsters University. Long enough to only have a vague recollection of the plot, largely overshadowed by a memory of mediocrity, so I went into this with low expectations. Still, it's a Pixar movie with a collection of excellent characters, so maybe I was just misremembering?
Well, sort of. Where Monsters University shines is in some of the newer characters, who bring some unexpected life to various scenes (particularly the Oozma Kappy fraternity). Unfortunately, rather than letting these new additions have space to breathe, MU instead leans on nostalgia and callbacks (call forwards?) for most of the run time, and it honestly gets a bit annoying. I don't need this film to be the origin story for every single character in the original movie. Hell, even the Yeti gets a cameo and one-line explanation for why he ended up exiled to the human world (and it's played as a gag, rather than an interesting world-building moment). Even Randy's squint gets a back story 🤦♂️
The problem is that the original was a Pixar special: a triumph of character, originality, and their particular brand of world-building, which takes something incredibly familiar and shines an entirely new light on it. The sequel is hampered by the fact it can't be too original, because it has to fit into the existing narrative and characterisation, but it still falls short of any real imagination. The setting and plot are ripped straight out of every other American college campus comedy, replete with mean Dean, fraternity prank wars, jocks, cheerleaders, and a plucky band of misfits who overcome the odds. Rather than subverting expectations with the plot or setting, they try to subvert expectations based on the first movie. We get Randy as a nice, competent roommate (until the plot needs him to be otherwise); we get Sulley as a slacker and grade A asshole; we get Mike trying to be a Scarer rather than the role he ends up in. It's fairly lazy from a writing perspective.
Oh, and about Mike's job. IMO, the film misses a huge opportunity here. It spends the entire run time hammering home this message of "working with your strengths gives you advantages others lack", but then never really pays it off. None of the OK clan really become that scary, despite some useful (and obvious) physical traits and learned talents, but Mike's fate is even worse. His strength is in meticulous planning, detail, and scare strategy, all perfect skills for a Scare coach (or whatever their title is), an existing career that he should be immediately singled out for by the Dean and trained towards. That presents this huge plot hole, where it gives Mike no options and makes the ending bittersweet, because he still doesn't achieve his goal of becoming a Scarer. Instead, they could have had Mike invent an entirely new line of employment, proving that working with the natural talent of the Scarers and learned smarts in the coaches creates a much more efficient scare harvesting team. He could have literally changed his world, but instead, he just sort of settles. It's... not that inspiring, honestly.
The end result is fine. It made me chuckle plenty of times; the core characters of Mike and Sulley still have great chemistry; and the whole "misfits at college" plot is so overdone because it does, ultimately, work. But it's still a pretty by-the-numbers, unimaginative movie, which is a real shame considering both the cast and the sheer brilliance of the original.
Also, does it not bother anyone else that MU has the same eye logo as Monsters Incorporated? That just seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen...