Monsters University

by Frederica Mathewes-Green
The prequel to Monsters, Inc. is funny and beautiful, though the plot is flat.

Never seen a Pixar movie before? A good place to start is Monsters, Inc. (2001). It’s about Sully and his best friend, Mike, a typical buddy-movie pair. Sully, voiced by John Goodman, is a gentle giant, and Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, is a short, round guy with overflowing self-confidence. It hardly matters that Sully is eight feet tall and has blue and purple fur, and Mike is basically an eyeball on legs.

They work for Monsters, Inc., the company that provides the energy that powers the great city of Monstropolis — energy that’s derived from children’s screams. When night falls, big monsters like Sully go to work on the factory “scaring floor,” where doors to children’s closets are slotted into each worker’s station. When the door opens, the child’s bedroom comes into view. Sully, an award-winning scarer, goes in and gives the kid a fright, and Mike captures the scream’s pure energy in yellow metal canisters.

This is dangerous work, because children are highly toxic to monsters. A child’s sock accidentally carried back into the factory represents a threat to the entire city. That’s why monsters are afraid of children. When a little girl creeps through her closet door into the factory, Sully and Mike face a situation that is for them disastrous, for us hilarious.

Pixar Animation Studios, which pioneered computer animation, has been giving us delightful, original storylines like this since 1995’s Toy Story. The films are popular with parents of every kind, but conservative families appreciate particularly the lack of gross jokes, double-entendres, and inane pop-culture references. Though many kids’ movies pit smart kids against stupid adults, adult lead characters in Pixar movies are wise, brave, and risk their lives to rescue children.

But when news was released that the studio was working on a Monsters sequel, it provoked some mixed feelings; sure, it would be great to see Mike and Sully again, but was the studio now going to take the easy road into self-repeating safety?

Monsters University is a prequel, actually, and this story is told from Mike’s point of view. It begins with an elementary-school field trip to Monsters, Inc., where little Mike is awed and inspired by the guys on the scaring floor. He vows to himself, “I’m gonna be a scarer.” Soon we’re seeing teenaged Mike arriving at the Monsters University campus, suitcases in hand and stars in his eyes.

This is an extraordinarily beautiful film. The leafy campus with its handsome old buildings goes through the seasons in a blaze of color and light. (The 3D effect adds nothing, though — as usual, I think.) Pixar develops its own technology as it goes along, and this film is much more real-looking than the original, twelve years ago. Sully’s long blue-and-purple fur now has 5.5 million moving hairs, compared with 1 million in the original film. There’s new tech for lighting, too; “global illumination” now causes light to bounce off surfaces realistically, so a scene has up to 500 sources of light. A late afternoon in September on this campus is about as beautiful as you can stand. The original film was confined mostly to the interior of a factory, but this one gives you plenty to savor.

A college movie demands a lot of extras, too, since people (or monsters) are in the background of every outdoor shot. The filmmakers created some 400 characters, each of whom has a specific identity. (This principle of extreme thoroughness also motivated Pixar to create a convincing website for Monsters University, aimed at prospective students.) In all, the film is so visually saturated that you can’t take it all in, which will make it easier for parents to rewatch the scores of times kids will demand a replay.

The storyline isn’t particularly original. Mike and Sully meet on campus, dislike each other, are booted from the Scaring Program, and have to work together to gain reinstatement. Their chance comes with the annual intramural Scaring Games, and they have to join a fraternity in order to compete. They end up in Oozma Kappa, the grab-bag for odd and unpopular students like two-headed Terry and Terri, only one of whom is a dance major, and Art, whose major is New Age philosophy (“I have an extra toe — not with me, of course”).

It’s as funny as any Pixar film, and there are a few surprising plot turns. But the story doesn’t tug the heartstrings like the original did. The stakes aren’t as high. These are two college students preparing for a career, not an adorable toddler strapped into the Scream Extractor. While it looks like a scary character is being set up as the bad guy, there’s no payoff. In all, this prequel is not as suspenseful or scary as the earlier film (though monsters practicing their scare exercises may still be too much for younger kids).

Another thing. We already know from Monsters, Inc. that Mike’s dream won’t be coming true. He doesn’t become a scarer but a scarer’s assistant, wrangling canisters. This could present an entrée into some oddly specific territory Pixar has explored before, concerning the popular message that, if you just follow your dreams and don’t let anyone discourage you, those dreams will come true. In real life, that doesn’t always happen. Some people just have more talent than others, or even physical attributes that give an undeniable edge.  

There’s a corollary message, that we shouldn’t draw attention to excellence because it might hurt the feelings of the less gifted. Instead of awarding one First Prize ribbon, everybody gets a Participation ribbon.

This was a theme in Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004). A family of superheroes is living in a relocation program and must conceal their gifts. The son, Dash, is super-speedy, but his parents won’t let him show it on the sports field. His mom tells him, “Everybody is special,” and Dash mutters, “That means nobody is.” In another scene, the dad protests, “They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” (Some reviewers saw shades of Ayn Rand.)

The theme was further refined in Ratatouille (2007). A rat from the French countryside dreams of becoming a Parisian chef, but he encounters a certain prejudice. He’s got talent, though, and the question arises: If you just persevere, will your dreams come true? Not exactly: “Not everyone can be a chef, but a chef can come from anywhere.” It’s a sentiment that is both encouraging and realistic.

So we know that all Mike’s diligence and hard work are of no avail. As Dean Hardscrabble tells him, “You’re not scary.” He’s a green orb with a single enormous eye and two skinny legs. He’s not scary, he’s cute. Perhaps something touching could have been made of this, but it’s just kind of finessed.

The opening and closing credits are terrific, as usual, and Randy Newman’s closing-credits music makes it worth waiting them out to get the “credits cookie” after they end. We’ve come to expect a Pixar movie to be preceded by a short, and The Blue Umbrella, though lacking in plot, is visually astounding. It took me awhile to be convinced that it was animation and not live action—oh, around the time the mailbox started smiling. Which brings up another thing: The short is about a blue umbrella who spots a pretty red umbrella with flirty eyelashes, and pursues her, loses her, and finds her again. Couldn’t be simpler — or more gender-typed, or heterosexist. Except in this way — every inanimate thing along the busy city street is rooting for them to get together. The mailbox, the gutter spout, the don’t-walk sign, everyone brightens up when the umbrellas draw near each other, and look dejected when they move apart. All the world loves a lover, has a stake in celebrating heterosexual love, because that’s where new little umbrellas come from.

— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.