Familiar lessons in family films are “Stay true to yourself!”, “Follow your dreams!”, and “Work hard and you can accomplish anything!” This isn’t true, but it’s a nice sentiment. The truth is that there are some things we’re not capable of accomplishing no matter how hard we work at them. That’s a tougher lesson, but also a more rewarding one. By embracing a more thoughtful theme but never forgetting their oft-repeated message about the importance of friendship, Pixar has returned to form in a big way with Monsters University, a film that’s not only intelligent, but also incredibly cute and ridiculously funny.
Taking place in their college days before Monsters, Inc., we see young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) dreaming of becoming a scarer even though he’s been an outcast his whole life. Undeterred, the spherical cyclops has worked hard his entire life to achieve his goal only to find competition at Monsters University in the lazy but innately talented James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). Their fierce competition ends up getting them both tossed out of the School of Scaring, but Mike makes a deal to get them back in if they can win the University’s Scare Games against the other fraternities/sororities. Teaming up with the misfits of the Oozma Kappa frat, Mike and Sulley begin their friendship while also learning their individual strengths and weaknesses.
The larger question from Mike and Sulley’s journey is “What makes you special and how do you find it?” That’s a much heavier and difficult approach than the self-esteem enriching “Be yourself! (whatever that means)” At the outset of the movie, Sulley’s “self” is entitled and arrogant while Mike is arguably misguided. They think they know who they are, but the joy is in the discovery rather than simply being satisfied with the moment. We can only find a worthwhile answer if we’re willing to do the work, and not simply be satisfied with what’s being asked of us or blindly charging towards a goal we haven’t seriously considered.
By putting the story within the framework of a competition, Pixar cleverly finds a way to emphasize not only their theme, but also find a fantastic outlet for the film’s humor and warmth. We see how competition isn’t necessarily bad, but we have to challenge each other for growth, not for ego (i.e. becoming even more entrenched in pre-determined concepts of our character). Monsters University never becomes heavy-handed with this approach because it always places the delightful characters and tone first.
The movie is adorable right from the get-go as a little, wide-eyed Mike Wazowski visits Monsters, Inc. and even though he has no friends, he remains upbeat and determined to be a scarer. As we head to Monsters University, there are clever sight gags and throwaway jokes throughout, and the Oozma Kappa gang is quite charming, especially the silly, idiotic, and slightly shady Art (Charlie Day). But even in this quirky group with their delightful antics, Monsters Univeristy never forgets to remind us about the importance of working towards what we can be rather than letting others or our own doubts guide us towards being just “OK”. It’s not enough to be yourself. You have to be your best self, and you can’t get there on your own. It’s the familiar Pixar moral—teamwork is essential—bolstered by a new angle.
Rather than easily fall back on Monsters, Inc., the prequel takes the friendship theme a step further by showing how our best relationships provide not only comfort, but growth and self-realization. The rivalry-turned-friendship was used before in Toy Story, but that was a story about acceptance whereas Monsters Univeristy is a story about reexamining who you are, and I love that, especially when you consider our current self-esteem society that’s terrified of failure. The belief we’re inherently good enough on our own so as long we only challenge others rather than ourselves is a poor lesson. Failure, friendships, and self-reflection make us better people in the long-run.
We expect lessons when we go to the classroom, but we don’t want them in the movie theater, and Monsters University never feels like a lecture. It feels like the funny, endearing, and smart filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and didn’t see from their last two outings. And it’s a reminder that Pixar has reached its biggest successes because it wasn’t willing to accept the animated family film status quo. Cars 2 is a soulless marketing juggernaut, and while Brave isn’t a bad story, it’s a disappointingly safe one. Monsters Univeristy asks more of its young viewers, and while the film employs a well-worn Pixar message and a comfortable snobs-vs-slobs framework, it uses that structure to tell a fresh and wonderfully entertaining tale. It’s not enough to “be yourself”. You have to learn what makes you special, and Monsters University is a special movie for what it has to teach us.