Monsters University tells a new kind of story
Spoiler Alert: Here be spoilers!
If you haven’t seen the film (and intend to see it) I’m going to ruin the ending for you in this article. And probably lots of the middle too.
Monsters University is Disney-Pixar’s follow-up prequel to Monsters Inc – an inspired, Oscar winning take on the the universal children’s fear that there are monsters in the bedroom. A full 12 years have passed since the first, now the second (this is like Star Wars), film came out so plenty of fans of the first – now second – are coming back as adults to see what happened to the characters before the last film. Argh, tenses.
I saw the first (second?) film years ago and enjoyed it but not so much that I was keen to pay hard-earned money to see the second (first?) one in cinemas. My girlfriend is a Pixar nut, however, and so there I was last week queuing up for tickets to a kids’ film and wincing at the price of a cinema ticket now that I’m no longer a student.
It was money well spent. Generally successful animations go on to spawn slightly lesser animations and if that lesser animation still turns a profit then it spawns again. In a pattern that goes something like this:
[Film] > [Less convincing first sequel] > [Chancy second sequel] > [Scraping the barrel] > [Ah here lads, seriously]
…and so on ad infinitum until you end up with something like the Ice Age or Shrek film series. Monsters University has bucked that trend and is vastly superior to Monsters Inc. Amazingly, it’s not the only kids film to it this summer – Despicable Me 2 also runs circles around its predecessor having properly figured out how to get the most out of the humour that was 90% of the appeal of the first film.
Despicable Me 2 has simply refined its act and returns for a highly polished performance of what was already a solid concept. Monsters University goes one better: sure, it has polished its act, builds on characters we already love and delivers matching humour and pace but where it really scores is the story. The deeper themes chugging deep below the surface are the sort of thing one simply doesn’t expect from a film predominantly aimed at children. In fact they are not themes we often see in mainstream cinema releases at all: failure and personal inadequacy.
The central protagonist of Monsters University is Mike. Sulley is there too, but only as a support character among a solid cast of both old and new characters. We see Mike as a small boy who first discovers Scaring is a career and it becomes his life ambition instantly. He gets some encouragement from a real-life professional Scarer, studies hard, gets a place at a top Scaring university and seems bang on track to achieve his life’s ambition.
Off he goes to college (his geeky roommate goes on to be the villian from Monsters Inc. which is a lovely touch) where he is the most dedicated and downright irritating swot on the whole course. No lecturer can fail to be impressed by his dedication to the subject but, the Dean feels, he lacks a certain something necessary to be a real Scarer and by winter break he is dropped from the course along with Sulley (who is basically just too cool to bother work).
So far, so much by-the-book story arc construction: we are just shy of mid-way through and the protagonist has hit his low point, all odds seem to be against him and success is beyond his reach. Surely they can be no hope? Ah, but he is the protagonist, so adventure is in store…
The adventure is excellent, in keeping with Pixar tradition: an insane plan in the form of a wager on a scaring competition, unlikely sidekicks and more than a few solid life lessons and heart-warming moments as they discover how to get along, work together and believe in themselves. There are tense moments and good jokes, lots of visual trickery to admire and a few good jabs at university life for the adults at the film to enjoy.
A few lucky breaks coupled with dedication and ‘being good people’ (something that gets you places in films) and suddenly our unlikely band of heroes have the great prize within reach. They have surprised everyone – the cool kids, the lecturers who dropped them from the course and even themselves. Inevitably, at the final hurdle, they blow their opponents out of the water through great teamwork but mostly because Mike, whose life-long dream hangs in the balance, produces an amazing performance and steals the show.
And now comes the good bit. Steel yourself. All through the film lack of talent has plagued Mike. The Dean has told him he simply doesn’t have it, his friends have doubted him and his contemporaries have jeered him. But Mike has self-belief. He wants it, he believes he can do it, and he works hard at it: surely nothing can hold him back? In any other film, especially one aimed at children, Mike would show them all what he’s made of and go on to have a great scaring career working at Monsters Inc. In this film, Sulley – Mike’s new best friend – rigs the competition to ensure Mike will do well because he doesn’t believe Mike can do it by himself.
What sets this film apart is that it simply doesn’t happen for Mike. He’s the good guy, he has the ambition, work ethic and heart but he doesn’t have talent. People who want it less than him and work less than him will achieve what he never will. Mike fails to achieve the thing that he works all through the film to achieve. He’s simply not good enough.
I feel like this is an incredibly important narrative to see in a children’s film. While it is good to teach children to believe in themselves and that they can ‘be anything they dream’ the reality is that we cannot become people we simply aren’t, and that is a painful lesson that most of us learn the hard way later in life. It is made all the more painful by the lessons we learn as children: Failure is for people who don’t work hard enough, want it badly enough or who are generally baddies. Villains and bullies fail, nice people do not fail. If you fail at something, therefore, it follows that it was either because you made bad decisions, were mean, weren’t bothered or lacked ‘the heart’. This is the darker side of the logic behind The American Dream.
The cultural emphasis on trying your best and following your dream makes no allowance for the fact that there is only so much room at the top and only so much talent to go around.
Mike doesn’t achieve his dream. He has to watch other people achieve it and find a way to live with that, find some other way to be happy. He has other talents, they are just not the talents he dreamed of having. In short, he has to accept himself in place of the person he dreamed he would be and learn to live with the real Mike.
I salute Disney-Pixar for spinning a story around this while maintaining the light-hearted fun we’d expect of a Monsters Inc. prequel. This is an adventure film, not a sermon, but bubbling under the surface is the acknowledgement of an issue that we have not seen in a children’s film before. Five stars.