The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 13 Jan 2022

Monsters University was a refreshing departure from the moral inanity of the typical kids’ movie

Back when it was fresh, I read this 2013 article by Luke Epplin, You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?, and I've wanted to blog about it ever since. I agree with the author's thesis, which is:

No genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children's movie. … These movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams.

Having had two kids grow up during that decade, I sympathize and agree. I have one serious complaint with the article, though. Epplin gives a list of examples:

  • Kung Fu Panda (fat panda becomes kung fu master)
  • Ratatouille (rat becomes French chef)
  • Wreck-It Ralph (“8-bit villain yearns to be a video-game hero”)
  • Monsters University (“unscary monster pursues a career as a top-notch scarer”)
  • Turbo (“common garden snail … dreams of racing glory”)
  • Planes (“unsatisfied crop-duster yearns to … compete in the famed Wings Around the Globe race”)

Yes, okay, I agree. I have only one complaint. This is terribly unjust to Monsters University.

I am not a fan of Monsters University. I don't regret seeing it once, but I will not be disappointed if I never see it again. But it does not belong in that list. I came out of the theatre saying “wow, at least it wasn't that same old Disney bullshit”. Monsters University is very consciously a negative reaction to the cult-of-self-esteem movies, a repudiation of them.

Monsters University sets up the same situation as the other self-esteem movies: the protagonist, Mike Wazowski, wants desperately to be a “scarer”, one of the monsters who pops out of a closet to scare a child after bedtime. He wants it so much! He works so hard! He may be competing against scarier monsters, but none of them has Mike's drive, they're all coasting on their actual talent. None has Mike's dreams or his commitment. None has learned as much about the theory and technique of scaring.

There's a problem, though: Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, isn't scary.

Mike Wazowski is a
two-foot-tall green globe with arms and legs and a single large
eye. He has a broad, cheerful smile full of (blunt) teeth, no
nose, and cute little horns.

Epplin complains:

The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.

Monsters University has that naysaying authority figure, a college dean (Helen Mirren) who tells Mike in three words why he will never be a scarer: “You're not scary.” Mike is determined to prove her wrong!

Mike fails.

Catastrophically, humiliatingly, disgracefully. The movie is merciless.

Any success Mike appeared to have was illusory, procured by cheating. (Mike was unaware of the cheating, but in the depths of his self-deception he doesn't question his improbable success.) In fact the dean was exactly right: Mike isn't scary. As anyone can see by looking at him.

After being exposed as a cheat, Mike is expelled from Monsters University.

An epilogue shows that Mike and his friend Sully have gotten jobs working in the mail room of the power plant where the real scarers work. They work their way up to the cafeteria, and beyond. It's a long, hard slog, and takes years, but the road ends in success: Sully (who is scary) is a top scarer, and (as we know from Monsters, Inc.) Mike is his coach and support, accomplished, respected, and admired as an indispensable part of Sully's top-performing team.

The naysaying dean is never refuted. She's right. Mike isn't scary. And even if he had been, he's more valuable as Sully's pit crew. He's found his real calling.

As I said, I didn't think much of the movie. But it absolutely did not follow the formula. And its moral lessons are ones I can really get behind. Not “never give up on your dreams, no matter how irrational”, which is stupid advice. But instead “life has ups and downs but goes on” and “success, when it comes, takes a lot of toil and hard work”. And one of my favorites: “play the hand you're dealt”.

(For some other articles appreciating Monsters University's unusual willingness to engage with failure and subsequent course correction, see “‘Monsters University’, Failure, and ‘Rudy’” and Monsters University and the importance of failure in pop culture”.)

[ Addendum 20220118: It must be admitted that Mike Wazowski would be damn scary if run into unexpectedly. But movies are movies. ]

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