Monsters University, the prequel to Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., puts the studio’s brand back on track following a few recent stumbles. A send-up of ‘70s and ‘80s college comedies, Monsters University doesn’t feel as daring or original as Pixar’s best films, but it makes up for those limitations with solid storytelling. This film may not be the most memorable film the studio has ever produced, but it’s well worth the price of a ticket.
In the universe contained within this movie, monsters live in an alternate dimension hidden behind closet doors. Their economy runs on the screams of frightened children, and the most idolized monsters are Scarers—those who cross over into the human world to terrify kids. Monsters University follows Mike (Billy Crystal)–a diminutive, green monster sporting one giant eye–as he sets out for college. He intends to get a degree and join the ranks of the illustrious Scarers even though he’s not intimidating in the least. Still, Mike sets out to prove everyone wrong, eventually coming into conflict with jock and all around slacker, Sully (John Goodman).
As the two monsters attempt to one-up each other, they get into hot water with an ice-cold dean voiced by Helen Mirren. The two are expelled from the prestigious Scare major with the caveat that if they win the university’s Scare Games, they can be readmitted to the program. Of course, the two have to join a fraternity in order to compete in the games, and, of course, the only fraternity that will accept them is a collection of nerdy outcasts voiced by the likes of Charlie Day, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, and Dave Foley.
From this point on, Monsters University unambitiously settles into the mold created by comedies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Old School. There’s the gang of misfits that need our heroes to mold them into a functioning team; there’s the gang of pompous, exclusive jocks; and there’s the anti-social dean. All that’s missing is the sex, drugs, and alcohol, but this is a children’s movie after all. Monsters University is the most chaste, sober movie about college you’re likely to see, and that’s a good thing.
The movie feels overly familiar because of the template the filmmakers elected to follow, but strong character development and several multi-layered gags keep the material compelling. We know Mike and Sully will whip their gang of misfits into shape, we know they’ll find a way to win the games, and because this is a prequel, we know Mike and Sully will eventually become Scarers themselves.
The destination doesn’t matter here, the journey is everything. Mike and Sully achieve success, but only in an unconventional manner. Monsters University, ostensibly a children’s movie, probably has more of value to say about the state of American higher education than any movie released in the past decade. The film offers a few curve balls, including an epilogue that suggests getting a college degree isn’t necessary in order to fulfill your dreams, and in fact, may be a detriment.
The great thing about the film’s message is that it’s positive, but it also isn’t trite. Mike stays true to himself and eventually earns acceptance, but not in the manner he initially envisioned. He doesn’t become a campus hero and the class valedictorian. Everyone constantly reminds him that he isn’t scary, and they’re right—he isn’t. Further, the movie never shows him dig deeper in order to become a ferocious monster.
However, that’s precisely what’s so uplifting about the movie. Mike accepts that he will never be scary, but he finds a way to excel in spite of his physical limitations. He isn’t the diamond in the rough he wishes to be, but he finds another way to succeed. He stays true to himself, he still fails, but other opportunities become available due to his diligence and hard work.
It’s a cold, hard fact of life that you can’t be anything you want to be when you grow up; you can only become what you’re capable of becoming. Monsters University takes that hard fact, and instead of ignoring it or distorting it, shows the audience a silver lining. Monsters University offers a worthwhile message, one from which adults would benefit just as much as children.