Monsters University is both cute and charming, and I at least found it to be not in the least ways unenjoyable while I was watching it. This is, apparently, where we are now, with Pixar Animation Studios. And note that I'm of the mind that Brave is a pretty solid movie that got a completely unfair rap, so there'll be no post-mortems here. Pixar has been great before; Pixar will, I suppose, be great again. But with Monsters University, Pixar is merely being good - merely making a film that is cute, full of pleasing but sort of routine character beats, wry without being actually funny, deliriously gorgeous, playfully designed without a surplus of creativity. It is a movie that passes basically any test you would be likely to throw its way, except for the one where it justifies the fact that it exists.

A prequel to the 12-year-old Monsters, Inc., the film shares the unenviable anchor of all such films, which is that we know, in general terms, how things are going to end up, since the idealised audience already knows what happens later. And when I claim that MU's ideal audience is familiar with the first film, I'm underselling it considerably. This is a film in which the entire edifice of not just the plot, but the world in which the plot takes place hinges on the need for monsters to collect children's screams, with the titular university serving as one of the finest institutions where monsters go to learn the art of scaring, and the various technical trades that are part of scare refining and storage. The screams, as we know who watched the first movie, are the monster society's fuel source; a fact that underpins every single event that occurs in either of the movies, and one that MU doesn't bother to clarify except through implication, and even that doesn't come until deep into the movie. That's not even touching on how the film doesn't really build up any reason to like the main characters except that it assumes we're already invested in their lives (fair is fair: Toy Story 3, a near-masterpiece, does the same thing). In short: if you don't have a working knowledge of MI, then MU has no real interest in your sort of person.

That being said, some parts are deeply satisfying on the level of prequeling, beginning with a prologue in which we see future Monsters, Inc. star employee Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal, or Noah Johnston as a child) depicted as a little boy, and thus we learn once more the truth established at least as long ago as the Muppet Babies sequence in The Muppets Take Manhattan, that juvenile versions of familiar characters are hella cute. Some parts are not much satisfying at all, like the great majority of what goes on later, and we find that while Mike has been rewound with his personality mostly intact, James "Sulley" Sullivan" (John Goodman) - whose thinner adolescent redesign was terrifying as hell but that's probably just me - apparently used to be a titanic douchebag, and MU is largely the story of how Mike and Sulley, fiercely competitive students in the university's School of Scaring, end up becoming tight-knit friends as Sulley learns the importance of not being a dick and Mike learns that there's more to life than book-larnin'.

Adopting the shape of a traditional '80s "lame frat vs. cool asshole frat" comedy - the cool asshole frat in this case is lead by a grey bull-like monster voiced by Nathan Fillion, who fills the role's generic requirements exquisitely - MU is light on narrative surprises, until the end comes along and presents a rather surprisingly mature and pragmatic lesson about how to keep moving forward in life; unexpectedly, it doesn't subvert the college hijinks template (except that, as a G-rated movie pitched firmly at kids and secondarily at their parents, it has to be a whole hell of a lot cleaner), but simply presents the best, most efficient version of a standard generic property within the context of a pre-existing universe and several pre-existing characters (a lot of non-speaking, blink-and-miss-it cameos; a slightly more extended role for the first film's main antagonist, the chameleon monster Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who starts out as an eager, people-pleasing nerd). It's freakishly unambitious for the studio that but five years ago, like it wasn't no thing, gave the world a galaxy-spanning romance between robots married to an ecological fable, though the film's embellishments of the original film universe feel largely well-considered, and thanks to the new characters, we have an especially well-designed Pixar character voiced by Helen Mirren (a bat/centipede hybrid with an officious attitude), for which I am obliged to be grateful.

At least on the level of technology and visuals, the film is a dramatic leap forward; it's been some time since Pixar has seriously pushed the envelope - because after Ratatouille and WALL·E, where could they possibly have left to go? - but apparently they've finally decided, "fuck it, time for photorealism", because several of the locations in MU, particularly a forest at night late in the film, look more eerily like the real world that you and I occupy than anything in any computer animated feature I've ever seen (the short attached to MU in its theatrical run, The Blue Umbrella goes even further, looking so realistic that I couldn't convince my brain that I was looking at animation in several shots). I'm not certain that of all projects, the fantasy starring big cutesy monsters was the one to leap over that gulf, but what it leaves us with is a movie of particularly expressive locations and peerlessly subtle and beautiful lighting, far enough beyond the already magnificently tactile WALL·E that I shudder with joy to think of what will happen when the studio commits itself to a story of that depth and resonance again.

Because Monsters University is... not that. It's a very nice family film with powerfully few surprises, even fewer than the prequel framework would seem to have already insisted upon, and first-time feature director Dan Scanlon has not remotely the same facility with these characters that MI director Pete Docter did; they resemble the eminently lovable and emotionally full figures from before, but they don't have the same resonance and complexity. Maybe this is what happens when you take the unendurably adorable human toddler out of the equation; maybe it's what happens when you're not telling a story that ever breaks away from the most obvious channels and clichés, however successfully revived. At any rate, I can't credibly argue that Monsters University is in any way bad or deficient, but it's dreadfully plain and ordinary, and that almost turns out to be worse.