Original Release: June 21, 2103
Directed By: Dan Scanlon
Screenplay By: Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird and Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Helen Mirren
If I could give an award to the most underrated Pixar film, I think I would easily give it to Monsters University. As someone who is not a fan of prequels, I didn’t even go to see this one in the theater. I didn’t care. And honestly, I think a lot people felt that way. I remember finally seeing it on DVD and thinking, wait, why did I not see this? That’s because Monsters University is a delightful little comedy about two worst enemies who become best friends. What’s more is that it shows how there isn’t always one right way to do everything and that people, well in this case monsters, have different things they excel at and different things they aren’t so great at. And most importantly, it shows that that very fact is a good thing. Let’s use one big eye to take a closer look.
In retrospect, it makes complete sense that Mike is a nerd who excels at everything while Sully is a lazy jock. Immediately this puts them at odds. Of course, when life dreams and family pride are put on the line, they are forced to work together towards a common goal: making a fraternity which is the lamest of them all, into winners. The film wastes little time raising the stakes as Mike throws his team in to compete in the Scare Games and bets that if they win, the whole team will be admitted into the Scaring School, basically the Monster world’s version of being doctors or lawyers. Yet if they lose, Mike will have to leave the school for good, giving up a lifelong dream of attending Monsters University.
Monsters University works in an opposite structure to Monsters, Inc. In the original film, we watch best friends begin to grow apart and then must find a way to come together again. In the prequel, we see pure enemies who must learn how to be best friends by the end. This mirror structure actually works very well. The problem with prequels is that they end up feeling less important as you already know what will eventually happen. But here, I really did want to know how these polar opposites would end up being the amazing team they later become. There’s something very organic and real about how their friendship evolves and though the nerd and the jock is not a story that is wholly original, Pixar finds ways to make it feel as though I’m seeing it for the first time.
Something I praised Monsters, Inc. for was its excellent world building. This is further developed here as questions like, where do the scream tanks come from are answered. I think it’s interesting to see how much this world revolves around energy and fuel. I think that feeling might also be there as that is the specialty of the school itself. Everything seems to revolve around how scary someone is and how that is a measure of success. This feels similar to how in some schools, how muscular or how tough you are decides how successful you are.
Mike really grows as a character in this film. While in the original film, he can be seen as a naggy, sometimes whiny sidekick, he manages to really shine here. He’s resourceful and intelligent. He’s driven and passionate. He’s a character we really feel for because he’s in a world that he isn’t right for but it takes some time for him to figure that fact out. Much like many students. What he goes to school for, isn’t his true calling, and it takes making some mistakes to find his own path.
As a side note, I really love seeing Randall develop his hatred for Sully. It’s fun to see him start to give his evil glare because he takes off his glasses to look cool. He sort of represents the other path that someone who wants to come out of their shell might take and it really is the most revelatory this film gets in relationship to its predecessor.
This might stand as one of my favorite Pixar endings. Not because it’s incredibly moving or tear-jerking, but because it’s pleasantly surprising. Much like Ratatouille, this ending exists in more of a real world. Yeah, they got expelled. There’s no magical way to come back from that, but there are other ways to get to where you want to be. Monsters University ends up being a tale of how we learn to carve our own path and then take our own road to get there. And all that really matters are the relationships we make along that path. “You never told me that before,” says Mike when Sully comes clean about his family issues. “That’s because we weren’t friends before.” What a great line.
So while Monsters University may never be the best Pixar movie, it is a great one nonetheless. Honestly, I think it’s a better film for college students than kids. It represents tough lessons we all learn as we grow up and shows that if you have a dream, you can attain it, but your dream might transform along the way. We are all great at something. Sometimes it just takes a little effort to understand what that something is. Monsters University casually reminds us that teamwork always trumps solidarity and friendship always trumps rivalry.
Our time with this project is coming to an end. Since I’ve already written about Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur, next week will be the last Vault Pixar before we move on to a new project. As a side note, I am currently reading Ed Catmull’s (President of Pixar) book Creativity, Inc. and I am beyond excited to talk about it here as it has been not only life affirming but extremely motivating. In the meantime, I’ll get back to watching Pixar movies. I hope the next one doesn’t make me cry. What’s that? You say the next one is Inside out? You know what, just leave the tissue box here for a bit.
NEXT UP: Inside Out