Pandemic commissions: Monsters University

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Literary analyst extraordinaire and blogging buddy Laura commissioned me to watch and review Monsters University, a sequel to Monsters, Inc. about which I had no great expectations whatsoever. It’s Pixar, so I figured it’d be good, but the movie’s existence seemed inessential. On the whole, watching it just confirmed my thinking, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, and it’s got a heartwarming message, so let’s dive in.

The interesting thing about Monsters University is that it almost feels like fanfic. It fleshes out the world of Monstropolis in ways that the earlier movie didn’t have the time or the inclination to do: it becomes evident, for example, that there’s more than one scaring company, and by extension, there’s more than one institute of higher education. The focus of this film is also very firmly on Mike, who (as I think I mentioned in my review of Monsters, Inc.) has hitherto been presented as a lifelong sidekick. The beating heart of Monsters University is in showing us how no one is a sidekick in their own story, nor should they be. If Monsters, Inc. is about the jocks, the big-time celebrity scarers (developers have described their conception of Sulley as being “like the star quarterback”), Monsters University is–quite literally–about the nerdy weirdos, misfits and outcasts, and it handily dramatizes how short-sighted it is to valorize jocks and popularity culture.

This makes it extremely well suited to be a movie for kids, since popularity is a major concern of every child who attends school. Even if you have no interest in it, it is a force that shapes your kid-life like gravity, and it’s also easy to get caught up in these contests despite your best intentions. Randall Boggs, the villain in Monsters, Inc., is given something of an origin story here: he’s Mike’s roommate at university and starts off as a friendly, hapless nerd with no self-confidence, attending a frat party bearing a box of cupcakes decorated to read BE MY PAL. (During a chase scene, the box is upended and several of the cupcakes fall on Randall’s head, forming the word LAME, which is the sort of thing that both works brilliantly, as a visual gag that appeals to the general emotional cruelty of kids, and has always made me intensely sad. I’ll be your pal, Randall! Cupcakes aren’t lame!) His garden-of-Eden moment comes when the cool guys at elite frat Roar Omega Roar accept him, because his ability to blend in with his environment is considered scary. He’s never seen himself this way before, and popularity is a drug; it goes straight to his head, and he’s no longer friendly to Mike. He’s a cautionary tale: we know how he ends up.

Mike, meanwhile, is a fount of boundless optimism and jollity, and he doesn’t really give a damn who likes him. His sidekick nature in Monsters, Inc.–we see him as Sulley’s coach, personal trainer and cheerleader–is developed in Monsters University; he’s desperately ambitious, if also overly theoretical, and anything that stands in the way of his becoming a scarer is simply an obstacle to be surmounted. Threatened with expulsion, he determines to win the Scare Games, a student-run competition, but can only scrape together a team composed of the frat brothers of Oozma Kappa (yes, it’s abbreviated as OK). They’re wretchedly unscary: round-bodied mature student Don, a former sales manager with a mustache and ’80s glasses; goony (and apparently stoned) arch of purple fluff Art; two-headed Teri and Terry (drama and dance majors, respectively) and monster-version-of-the-kid-from-Up Squishy, whose mom’s house doubles as the frat house. As in all such films, the training montages–Mike attempting to teach them how to roar and sneak and pounce, the OK brothers failing dismally but hilariously–are delights. The real emotional heft of the film, though, is in the discovery that “scary” can be a lot of different things; that people monsters can achieve success by embracing what they have–even their weaknesses–instead of trying to be something that they aren’t. The final round of the Scare Games is a great set piece, but the best bit is when Squishy (who really does just look like an elongated pink potato with legs) achieves the highest score simply by utilizing his ability to appear, absolutely silently, right over someone’s shoulder.

The OK brothers are the best-realized of the new characters. Don’s character arc–from laid-off, middle-aged middle manager with disappointed dreams to newly confident scarer to dating Squishy’s mom (yes!)–is particularly moving; as ever, Pixar is good at bringing out the poignancy of adulthood even while it continues to be brightly coloured, funny, and fast-moving enough for its child audiences. The other new characters are less impressive. Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble, though brilliantly designed (she does look bloody scary; she’s sort of part dragon, part centipede), is basically a stereotype of a stern professor and not particularly believable. Worthington, the president of Roar Omega Roar, is again a jock-y cliché, as is his own sidekick, the intensely stupid and boorish Chet. Alfred Molina plays a Scaring 101 professor who makes virtually no impression, which is a brutal waste of Alfred Molina. Squishy’s mom, gloriously, is a curlers-in-her-hair, minivan-driving housewife who listens to thrash metal, but that’s as much nuance as she gets. (You might say that’s all the nuance she needs. It’s a good joke and the timing is impeccable.) There are sororities as well as fraternities at Monsters U, but they’re weirdly uniform; all the members of Python Nu Kappa look exactly the same, for instance. Sulley’s character arc, though, is very well done. The privileged scion of an ancient scaring family, he appears to regard his position and success as his birthright, an attitude that enrages scrappy, started-from-the-bottom-now-I’m-here Mike. (We still never see their parents or families, though; this must have been a deliberate choice, though I can’t quite work out why.)

It’s a lot of fun, then, Monsters U, although I don’t think it reveals anything particularly new about the world we already know through Monsters, Inc.: it gives us more detail, sure, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything. A sequel, instead of a prequel, might very well have done so; there must be serious economic and social implications for the adaptation of the energy industry to the discovery that laughter is ten times more potent than screams. But I don’t think that’s likely anytime soon, and I don’t think it’d be necessary either, even though Sulley and Mike are fun, lovable characters.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

7 thoughts on “Pandemic commissions: Monsters University

    • No, she only appears in one shot (entirely swathed in yellow CDA protective gear)! The Yeti makes a brief reappearance near the end, though.

  1. Thanks so much for this lovely and detailed analysis! I think what struck me so deeply about Monsters U when I first watched it (and this probably had a lot to do with when in my life I saw it) is that it’s so unusual to have a mainstream narrative about an underdog protagonist fighting for an ultimate dream against unlikely odds, and then they DON’T achieve that dream. This was obviously an ending forced upon Pixar by the established set-up in Monsters Inc, and so is in one sense, predictable, but I still got so invested in Mike’s journey. Also, always love a bit of campus fiction.

    • You know what, that’s an excellent point, and one I should have explored more deeply. It’s not just a feel-good narrative in the classic ’80s makeover sense, where the underdog miraculously gets everything they want; it’s a feel-good narrative in a much more sincere and realistic sense, where people accept that what they are is more than enough and reject (or begin to reject) hierarchical systems of value. I suppose in that sense it’s pretty unique!

      • I think me and my sister liked this film so much in our early twenties because we seemed to be failing at everything…

        I loved your analysis of Randall and the fact that both Sulley and Mike weirdly don’t seem to have families (despite the fact that Sulley’s family status is pretty important to his backstory).

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