It’s been common practice for older generations to complain about younger up-and-coming ones for years – you’ve heard your fair share of “back in my day” stories, I’m sure – but with the insane rise of technology over the past two decades, the generation gap has split far wider than normal. Tons of articles have been written about the “every kid in Little League gets a trophy” syndrome, detailing the coddling of America’s youth in which parents reward their kids merely for participating and not for excellence. But it’s not just parents – this mentality has seeped into our culture and the media we consume as well. Thankfully, Disney/Pixar’s Monsters University has something to say about that.
(Major spoilers for the film ahead. Seriously, I’m going to spoil the entire movie.)
The movie opens with a young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) on an elementary school field trip to Monsters Inc., where he is inspired to become a scarer. The is the defining moment of his entire childhood, and the movie then flashes forward to Mike’s first day at Monsters University, where he signs up to major in scaring and claims he was “born for this.” He wants nothing more than to simply get started, having waited this long to start laying the groundwork for what he’s sure will be his eventual career as a legendary scarer.
Throughout the course of the film, Mike meets the athletic and cocky Sully (John Goodman) and the two constantly butt heads, leading to them being kicked out of the Scaring Program. In a last ditch effort to make it back into the program, they join forces with a group of ragtag misfits at a nerdy fraternity to attempt to win the Scare Games, a school-wide event that determines the scariest students on campus. The group returns to Monsters, Inc. to get some inspiration, and they learn a lesson about how what makes them misfits to outsiders can actually be their greatest strengths. This is a lesson that’s taught in seemingly every animated film these days, and while it’s a totally fine lesson to learn (and in important one in and of itself), it does continue that trend of basically saying, “hey, you’re special too!” Not exactly a new message. But then…
The rest of the movie essentially plays out like an underdog sports comedy, and just when you think everything is going to work out nice and cleanly in the end, the writers subvert our expectations: things take a dark turn. Sully rigs the last event because he doesn’t believe Mike is scary enough to win it on his own. The group wins, but Mike discovers the betrayal and causes Sully to come clean, at which point he’s expelled from the school. Whoa. A distraught Mike ventures into the human realm to try to scare a group of kids in an effort to prove to himself that he really is scary. After all, he’s the University’s best student and he’s studied scaring methods so much he has them committed to memory.
But here’s where the REAL lesson starts to come into play – Mike isn’t actually scary. Knowing the theory of how to do something and actually being able to DO that thing are very different, and Pixar takes a bold step in the right direction with their storytelling in this film. With Sully’s help, Mike comes to grips with his own shortcomings. The fact that he’s lived his whole life with the expectation of becoming a professional scarer…well, Pixar says, sometimes that isn’t good enough. It’s refreshing that a studio would preach this message to kids, instead of blindly continuing the whole “you can do ANYTHING you want, as long as you put your mind to it!” routine. Life is tough, and you don’t always get what you want – regardless of how much you believe you should.
The importance of this message cannot be overstated for today’s children (and heck, even for some adults). Mike is saddened at first, but he soon realizes that “it’s OK to be OK” and he moves on with his life. He’s spent his whole childhood aiming for the bulls-eye, but now he knows he’ll never hit it. But this next part is extremely important, too: instead of giving up entirely, or scrapping his life’s work, Mike finds an alternate way to do what he loves. Even though he and Sully have been booted out of school – another ballsy storytelling choice that runs against the societal norm that says you HAVE to go to high school, then you HAVE to go to college if you want a good career – the duo finds a low-level job at Monsters Inc. and slowly moves their way up in the company with hard work and dedication.
I didn’t love Monsters University as a whole, but I’m very impressed by Pixar’s effort to impart these messages on the audience who checks out this film. The studio is known for their feel-good projects, and while Monsters U certainly isn’t a sad movie, it’s interesting to note that it isn’t a typical animated movie that ends with everyone getting exactly what they want. Leave it to Pixar to tell us something we all need to hear every once in a while: when your best isn’t good enough, sometimes it’s OK to just be OK.
Monsters University is in theaters now.
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