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Film Review: Monsters University

Film Review: Monsters University

Pixar Studios

David Ives - published on 06/24/13

A sequel that truly does develop the story, with a surprisingly mature (in a good way) twist at the end

“Forget your dreams, kids. They’re stupid.” Believe it or not, that’s one of the main messages Pixar wants to convey to your children in their latest movie, Monsters University. And, taken in its proper context, I’ve got no problem with that at all (but I suppose I should explain).

When last we left James P. “Sulley” Sullivan & Mike Wazowski at the end of Monsters, Inc., the pair had managed to solve their world’s energy crisis through the discovery that children’s laughter generates more power than their screams of terror. And for all we know, Sulley and Mike are still happily toiling away at Monsters, Inc., making kids crack up on a nightly basis. That’s because Monsters University isn’t about what Mike and Sulley do next – it’s about what they did back in college before they became the buxom buddies we know and love today.

The movie begins with a brief prologue in which a young Mike visits Monsters, Inc. as part of an elementary school field trip and becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a “scarer,” one of the elite few monsters with the talent for properly frightening children. To help achieve that dream, once he’s old enough, Mike enrolls at Monsters University, the premier institution for training monsters in the fine art of fright. Things look bright at first as Mike settles in with his new roommate (and future Monsters, Inc. nemesis), Randall Boggs, and quickly makes a name for himself as the most fastidious student on campus. To Mike’s frustration, however, he finds there are two things standing in the way of his college success. One is that no matter how much he excels in his studies, he is constantly being upstaged by an arrogant, brutish, and decidedly unscholarly lout by the name of Sulley. The other is the simple fact that, although he himself doesn’t realize it, Mike is not scary in any way, shape, or form. Not even the tiniest bit.
It’s during a heated in-class argument over this latter detail that Mike and Sulley manage to draw the ire of the school’s dean, who proceeds to unceremoniously kick them both out of the scarer program. Not one to be discouraged so easily, Mike strikes a deal with the dean that if he can win the school’s annual Scare Games, the dean must allow him back in. Because the games are a group competition, however, Mike must secure the aid of a fraternity, which he does by joining Oozma Kappa, the worst house on campus (and the only one which would accept him, naturally). This motley band of monsters consists of an endearing group of losers: Don, a middle-aged, out-of-work salesman; Art, a philosophy major with a questionable past, present, and future; the two-headed Terri and Terry; and Squishy, a multi-eyed misfit whose mom’s place serves as the frat house. Unfortunately, even with all his new frat brothers in tow, Mike is still one monster short, so he reluctantly accepts Sulley onto the team in order to qualify to compete. Neither monster is enraptured with the idea of having to work together, but they both understand it’s their only chance.

It’s at this point  that Monsters University  enters into very familiar territory for anyone who grew up watching old college-age comedy classics from the 80’s like Animal House, Up The Creek, and Revenge Of The Nerds. Mike, Sulley, and their colorful crew of Oozma Kappa outcasts must overcome their own ineptitude and find a way to steal victory from their seemingly superior (and definitely more popular) competitors. But even though the plot is well worn, the setting keeps it from getting stale. The original Monsters, Inc. was a master class in world building (anybody interested in writing should be required to watch the first ten minutes of that movie to see how you create a fictional setting without using boring exposition), and its successor does a fine job of expanding on that film’s universe. From a priceless opening gag involving a two-headed pigeon to the end credits full of bulletin board notices for things such as “Roommate Needed: No Moulting, No Shedding, No Slime,” Monsters University takes full advantage of its non-human environment. Gone are the drinking contests and athletic events that determined the champions of people-populated colleges; instead, Monsters U’s Scare Games involve events such as trying to quietly sneak by a three-story tentacled terror of a librarian and navigating a maze while avoiding hard-to-frighten, world-weary simulated teenagers (“But Daddy, I love him!” bemoans one of the cardboard cut-outs when confronted with a screeching monster). Still, even with the surface changes, the basic story remains a classic “slobs vs. snobs” scenario.

It’s a familiar struggle for a lot of Christians. As happens to so many of us, one day you wake up to realize that what you thought you were going to do for the rest of your life isn’t going to happen because God has other plans. Sometimes it even happens to guys who end up becoming Pope. And, like Mike, we often struggle against that knowledge at first. After all, they’re our dreams – we should know what’s best for us, right? But with a little prayer and patience, and a little more prayer and discernment, and even more prayer and some helpful spiritual direction, and maybe just a bit more prayer (prayer is important, in case I forgot to mention it), we ultimately get to where God wants us to be. We find our real vocation.

It takes Mike a long time (and more than a few blows to the head) to get to that point – not just to realize he’ll never be the superstar scarer he envisioned, but to understand that what he can be just as important and needed by the other monsters in his life. And when he does reach that point, we come to see his relationship with Sulley in Monsters, Inc. in a different light; Mike is not just the hapless hanger-on he might first appear to be. Really, that’s about all you can ask of a sequel (or prequel, in this case) – that it be entertaining and that it continue to develop the story. Monsters University succeeds on both points.

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