'Monsters University': Three Missed Opportunities
Monsters University is cute and it's modestly amusing. But it's a Pixar film -- I expected much better. Hard to believe it was made by the same folks who created Finding Nemo, Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, or the Toy Story trilogy. The MU formula is pretty simple. It's one part buddy flick, one part Animal House, one part Bad News Bears, and two parts Revenge of the Nerds. Not much more to it than that.
It's a pretty simple tale for anyone who remembers Monsters Inc. In this prequel, Mike (Billy Crystal's little round green guy with the giant eyeball) and Sully (John Goodman's hulking, pink and blue monster) meet as enemies while studying to be "scarers" at Monster University. Sully is a lazy but naturally gifted student, who comes from a famous family. Mike is the bookish grind with no natural aptitude. They get in a spat, the no-nonsense dean throws them out, and they wind up forced to work together when they cast their lot with a fraternity of losers in order to get a shot at redemption (in a plot device lifted almost wholly intact from Revenge of the Nerds). It's all pleasant enough, but there's not much to it.
It's a shame, because Pixar has a gift for wrapping profound lessons in hilarious, moving, candy-coated garb. And we could use some of that when it comes to today's conversations about higher education, opportunity, accomplishment, and entitlement. For what it's worth, here are three places where I thought the Pixar team missed the chance to say something more interesting:
1. The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that "everyone is special," he dejectedly mumbles, "then no one is," while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade "graduation" is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University, there's nothing so interesting. In fact, at the end of the film, it's not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol' MU.
2. The movie (unintentionally and casually) seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless. While there's one early point at which Sully stumbles because of disinterest in his craft, that's the exception. More telling: at a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft. Generally, I think any fair-minded six-year-old watching the film would get the message that learning all the bookish stuff is pretty tangential to actually being a good scarer. This is clearly not the intended message; it just looks to be the result of lazy writing.
3. Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the "scaring" professor. With that kind of talent, you'd seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe's wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they've never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I'd have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline -- or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils. It was a real missed chance to give little kids a look at that kind of relationship, and for Pixar's gifted folks to tweak some conventions and comfortable nostrums.