By Jacob Mertens.
It would be easy to dismiss Monsters University as a child’s film with little pull for adults, or even to warm to the film’s slapstick and nostalgia for its predecessor and let it be at that. Unlike earlier Pixar films such as Wall-E (2008), which easily transcends the animated sandbox as both a tribute to silent era filmmaking and an environmental parable; or Up (2009), which features an extended opening sequence that portrays the grief of old age; Monsters University is not so broadly accessible. However, the interest of the film lies in the fact that it is principally meant for children, and as such becomes a gentle guide to a few ugly truths of life.
As children, we are told we can do whatever we want with life when we grow older. We must simply make our decision and work hard at it, and the universe will relent to our will. This is a kind point of view, and often not far from reality. However, at times we choose a path ill-suited for us, or a well-suited path becomes impossible to continue on for one reason or another. This leaves us with a need to find a new love in life—not always an easy thing to do. In Monsters University (directed by Dan Scanlon), the film follows the plight of the green, one-eyed monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), who has a passionate desire to the scare the daylights out of little children. The waddling fiend studies hard, lives and breathes his dream, and finally gains admission into his ideal college: the titular Monsters University. Now, only one obstacle stands between Wazowski and his goal, but unfortunately that obstacle remains unassailable. Namely, Mike Wazowski is just not scary.
Before this fact really hits home, the film introduces the brash James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), who coasts through college on his family name and innate scaring abilities. Sullivan acts as an ideal foil for Wazowski; he barely tries and scrapes away with a C average, but his scaring potential is clearly limitless. Wazowski, on the other hand, works hard and excels in the academia of scaring (yes, this is as preposterous as it sounds), but could not scare a fly with a flyswatter. The thin veneer of this premise gives way to a disturbing notion that some people strive hard for a dream without any God-given ability, while others leave their born talent to waste.
The film builds to a tournament structure, in which monsters must complete a series of trivial tasks to prove their mettle as scarers, and Wazowski and Sullivan become teammates due to chance and outstanding circumstances. Using this staid story arc, the underlying conflict in the matches becomes predictable and a little dull. At first, Wazowski and Sullivan struggle to keep their team together while remaining constantly at each other’s throat. As time goes on, necessity demands the two find balance in the other’s strengths and they begin to gain traction in the tournament. However, as predictable as this set up is, the writers make a wise decision at the tournament’s climax: they have Sullivan cheat to keep Wazowski from spoiling the team’s chances to win.
This shallow victory creates a far more meaningful conflict in Monsters University, one that provides subtle counter-programming for every child’s film that depicts adult life as either idyllic or nonexistent. In truth, Wazowski’s trouble stems from a system of instruction not dissimilar from that of our own childhoods. Again, most of us were told we can be whatever we want to be in life, but there is an underlying influence in the statement that seems to say we must be one thing. I would argue there is a social imperative at work here, a need for every child to grow up to be something definable, to contribute to society in a specific way: a fireman, a police officer, an astronaut, a doctor. These are roles of utility, cogs in a greater construct. And while it is true that most kids do not dream of being a janitor, they do not typically dream of being a landscape designer with a background in philosophy either.
Our paths in life twist and turn in front of us, and an overriding pursuit of one great passion to seek out and let define us often hems us in and restricts personal growth instead. Perhaps this is reading a little too deeply into a cartoon, but I found in Wazowski’s struggles a refreshing attempt at insight. The idea that some people are simply meant for a less glamorous life is as much a deception as thinking we all can do whatever we want if we love something enough. The great falsehood is that there can be only one love in life to find. The world is too big for that, and the sooner a child knows as much the better.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.