MOVIE REVIEW: Monsters University

written by David Steffen

Monsters University is a computer-animated children’s movie comedy produced by Pixar, released in June 2013.  It is a prequel to 2001’s super-popular Monsters Inc, which starred monsters James “Sully” Sullivan and Mike Wazowski working in the scare factory scaring human children to produce power for the monster city and accidentally let a human child into the monster world.

As you might guess from the title, Monsters University takes place in Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully’s (John Goodman) college days, as they’re just starting.  At the beginning of the movie they’re just starting school, both enrolled in the scarer program and they haven’t even met yet.  But they don’t quickly become friends like you might expect if you’ve seen the other movie.  Studious, hardworking model student Mike is constantly frustrated by lazy Sully who expects to cruise through college on his family name and reputation and his natural intimidating size.  But Monsters University is no easy ride, and least of all of the scare program, which Dean Abigail Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) watches over harshly.

They both fail their final exams, Sully because he’s lazy and Mike because he’s not scary, and as a last ditch effort they form a team to join the university’s Scare Games, making a wager with Hardscrabble that they can re-enter the program if their team wins.  These future-friends and now-enemies must join forces if they want to have a chance at their dream future.

Pixar is one of my favorite moviemakers, and Monsters Inc is one of their classic films that I love through and through.  It is great to see Mike and Sully onscreen again, albeit in a very different era of their lives when they weren’t buddies.  If I had seen this movie first, I think I might’ve loved it for what it is.  But, given that I am well familiar with the first movie, I found that the looming memory of what will be for Mike and Sully just… made me sad.

In this movie we see Mike as young and enthusiastic and idealistic and driven to achieve to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a scarer.  He is clearly the student who is the most academically well-versed in the profession of scaring the university has, and the university claims to be an academic institution.  It’s not a boot camp or physical training, it’s a university, so academics should rule.  The faculty repeats again and again that scaring isn’t just about being born with a scary appearance, it’s about applying yourself.  No one applies themselves more than Mike, and in the end, we already know… he’s going to fail, because although he works at Monsters Inc, he is not a scarer.  He is an assistant to a scarer.  His lifelong dream did not work out, and the Mike we see in Monsters Inc, while still energetic, has lost much of his drive for achievement his younger self had–he is content to be second fiddle to Sully’s natural talent and appearance, and he doesn’t even seem to realize that he doesn’t even get the secondary accolades he deserves–being covered up by a logo on the commercial, by a barcode on a magazine cover, and he doesn’t even realize.  The university system for monsters is a sham of pomp and circumstance, where monsters are told that they have to strive to achieve, but through every example they are shown that this is not true, that monsters who are born scary will be rewarded and monsters who are not born scary will not be.  No one in the movie seems to understand, even by the end, what a hollow facade their supposed education is.

Maybe, considering the major twists of the first movie, where it turns out the scaring profession in itself is based largely on lies, that children are not actually deadly to discourage empathy for them in a power system that’s based on scaring them.  So, maybe it’s appropriate that the education for an occupation based on lies be based on a sham education as well.  But I felt like in Monsters Inc, most of the monsters except for a few in leadership roles were oblivious to the lies, while I felt that the University’s lies were pretty plain.

In this movie we see Sully as a lazy student, expecting to ride through life on the fame of his family and his natural scariness/charm.  By the end of the movie he supposedly learns his lesson but, as much as I love Sully in the original Monsters Inc, it always felt to me like his scariness wasn’t anything he worked hard for, he was just born looking that way, he had the natural presence, and that’s how he kept being a top scarer, resting on his laurels.  I just considered that part of his character, and it didn’t bother me in Monsters Inc, it’s much like other stories where charming character succeeds at sales or any number of other fields that are based on personability.  But since much of the narrative of Monsters University was based on the idea of him redeeming himself from being a lazy student resting on his laurels, knowing where Sully ends up undermined his whole arc for me.

So, while I loved seeing the characters again, the movie as a whole just made me sad from knowing what the future holds for Mike and Sully.  If you don’t think knowing where this story goes would bother you, I think it was otherwise a fun movie, but I found it hard to get out from under that.

There was also one major plot point that didn’t make sense given the context of the first movie, this is a SPOILER.  At one point in the movie, Sully and Mike get trapped in the human world and end up scaring a group of adults to power a door from the human world side.  This has never been suggested to be possible.  Monsters at Monsters Inc are supposed to always shut the closet door so their humans don’t sneak through–if the door just opens whenever a human gets scared on the human side, then kids would be slipping into monster world all the time.  A kid would get scared in the dark and their parents would check the closet and find a doorway to another world there.  And given that this is a prequel, this major revelation should’ve already been common knowledge by the time of Monsters Inc.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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