Monsters University

[National Review Online; June 21, 2013]

Never seen a Pixar movie before? Monsters, Inc. (2001) is a good place to start. It’s a buddy movie, about Sully and his best friend, Mike. Sully, voiced by John Goodman, is a gentle giant, and Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, is a short, round guy with overflowing self-confidence. It hardly matters that Sully is eight feet tall and has blue and purple fur, and Mike is basically an eyeball on legs.

They work for Monsters, Inc., which provides the energy that powers the great city of Monstropolis. That energy is derived from children’s screams. When night falls, big monsters like Sully go to work on the factory “scaring floor,” where doors to children’s closets are slotted into each worker’s station. When the door opens, the child’s bedroom comes into view. Sully, an award-winning scarer, goes in and gives the kid a fright, and Mike captures the scream’s pure energy in yellow metal canisters.

This is dangerous work, because children are highly toxic to monsters. A child’s sock accidentally carried back into the factory represents a threat to the entire city. That’s why monsters are afraid of children. When a little girl creeps through her closet door into the factory, Sully and Mike face a situation that is for them disastrous, for us hilarious.

Pixar Animation Studios, which pioneered computer animation, has been giving us delightful, original storylines like this since 1995’s Toy Story. The films are popular with parents of every kind, but conservative families appreciate particularly the lack of gross jokes, double-entendres, and inane pop-culture references. Though many kids’ movies pit smart kids against stupid adults, adult lead characters in Pixar movies are wise and courageous, and risk their lives for children’s sakes.

Monsters University (opens June 21) is not a sequel but a prequel, reaching back to Mike and Sully’s college days. It begins with an elementary-school field trip to Monsters, Inc., where little Mike is awed and inspired by the guys on the scaring floor. He vows to himself, “I’m gonna be a scarer.” Soon we’re seeing teenaged Mike arriving at the Monsters University campus, suitcases in hand and stars in his eyes.

This is an extraordinarily beautiful film. The leafy campus with its handsome old buildings goes through the seasons in a blaze of color and light. (The 3D effect adds nothing, as usual.) Since Pixar creates its own software and technology, this film is much more realistic (not sure that’s the right term) than the original, now 12 years old. Textures are super-rich; Sully’s long blue-and-purple fur then had 1 million moving hairs, and now has 5.5 million. There’s new tech for lighting, too; “global illumination” now causes light to bounce off surfaces realistically, so a scene might bathe in 500 sources of light. A late afternoon in September on this campus is about as beautiful as you can stand. The original film was visually less-than-charming, because the storyline confined it mostly to the interior of a factory. The new film gives you plenty to savor.

A college movie demands a lot of extras, too, since people (or monsters) are in the background of every outdoor shot. The studio created some 400 characters, each of whom has a specific identity. (This principle of extreme thoroughness also motivated Pixar to create a convincing website for Monsters University, aimed at monstrous prospective students.) In all, the film is so visually saturated that you can’t take it all in. This will make it easier for parents to re-watch, the scores of times kids will demand a replay.

The storyline isn’t original. Mike and Sully meet on campus, dislike each other, are booted from the Scaring Program, and have to work together to gain reinstatement. Their chance comes with the annual intramural Scaring Games, and they must join a fraternity in order to compete. They end up in Oozma Kappa, the grab-bag for odd and unpopular students like two-headed Terry and Terri, only one of whom is a dance major, and Art, whose major is New Age Philosophy (“I have an extra toe. Not with me, of course.”).

It’s as funny as any Pixar film, and there are a few surprises. But the story doesn’t tug the heartstrings like the original did. The stakes aren’t as high. These are two college students preparing for a career, not an adorable toddler strapped into the Scream Extractor. The film lacks a bad guy. There are suggestions that one is being set up, but it turns out the character just has an impressive natural gift for looking scary. In all, this prequel is not as suspenseful or scary as the earlier film (though monsters practicing their scare exercises may still be too much for younger kids).

Another thing. We already know from Monsters, Inc. that Mike’s dream won’t be coming true. He doesn’t grow up to be a scarer, but a scarer’s assistant, wrangling canisters. This could have presented an entrée into some oddly-specific territory Pixar has charted before, concerning the misleading popular message that, if you follow your dreams, they are bound to come true. In real life, that doesn’t always happen. Some people just have more inborn talent than others. Some have physical attributes that give them an edge. Life isn’t fair. It’s better for a coach or advisor to help their charges face the facts, rather than cheer them along till they graduate with no realistic job prospects, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans.

There’s a popular corollary message abroad, that we shouldn’t draw attention to excellence because it might hurt the feelings of the less-gifted. Instead of awarding one First Prize ribbon, everybody gets a Participation ribbon. Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) dabbled with this theme, and some reviewers saw shades of Ayn Rand. A family of superheroes is living in a relocation program and must conceal their gifts. The son, Dash, is super-speedy, but his parents won’t let him show it on the sports field. His mom tells him, “Everybody is special,” and Dash mutters, “That means nobody is.” In another scene, the dad protests, “They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity.”

The theme was further refined in Ratatouille (2007). A rat from the French countryside dreams of becoming a Parisian chef, but he encounters a certain amount of prejudice. He’s got talent, though, and the question arises: can anyone succeed, if they just put their mind to it? Not exactly: “Not everyone can be a chef, but a chef can come from anywhere.” It’s a sentiment both encouraging and realistic.

So we already know that Mike’s diligence and hard work are of no avail. As Dean Hardscrabble tells him bluntly, “You’re not scary.” He’s a green orb with a single enormous eye and two skinny legs. He’s not scary, he’s cute. Perhaps something touching could have been made of this, but it’s just glossed over.

The opening and closing titles are terrific, as usual, and Randy Newman’s closing-credits music makes it worth waiting to get to the “credits cookie” at the end. A new Pixar feature is usually preceded by a short, and The Blue Umbrella, though lacking in plot, is visually astounding. It took me awhile to believe that it was the customary short, because I was convinced it was live action, not animation. The story concerns a blue umbrella who spots a pretty red umbrella with flirty eyelashes. He pursues her through the crowded sidewalks, loses her, and finds her again. The story couldn’t be simpler—or more gender-typed and heterosexist.

But there’s something more; every inanimate thing along the busy street is rooting for them to get together. The mailbox, the gutter spout, the don’t-walk sign, all brighten up when the umbrellas draw near each other, and sink into dejection when they drift apart. All the world loves a lover, sure—but why? What’s in it for them?

There’s a primordial reason everyone cheers when opposite sexes attract; it’s because we all have a stake in the continuation of the species. Umbrellas and mailboxes are probably not even members of the same species, technically, but new life is always cheerful news. Where else would little umbrellas come from?

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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