Monsters University is Pixar’s fourteenth feature film and a prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc. The film follows the collegiate exploits of stars James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, who we learn weren’t always such great friends.
The film is a welcomed return to form after the last two Pixar outings – Brave and Cars 2, which are easily the two worst films the studio has made. Monsters University is fun and funny, and succeeds as a prequel: it expands the Monsters universe and adds new depth to the first film (which I’d highly recommend watching before you go, especially if you haven’t seen it in a while).
Pixar’s films also tend to be at the forefront of social issues. Wall-E questioned the impact technology has on our lives and the consequences of wanton consumption. Up is a bittersweet meditation on the reality of aging. And Toy Story 3 asks what it means to grow up in the midst of our national struggle with extended adolescence.
Monsters University takes a hard look at the American Dream and ponders the University’s place in our future.
Spoilers for Monsters University from this point forward!
Since the founding of the first universities, a college degree was something only a few in our culture obtained. As late as 1948, only one in eight college-age students attended college; as late as 1970 many state universities were free. No longer, however. Decades of relative prosperity have elevated college to the logical next step after high-school. Post-secondary degrees are increasingly required to get even entry-level jobs, and with such an over-saturated job market, those who don’t go to college are at an ever-increasing disadvantage.
But as demand for university education rises, so does the price. The average student – even those from the upper middle class – graduate with an average of $35,000 in student loans (which differ so thoroughly from other kinds of loans the article linked above compares them to indenture). Meanwhile, universities offer less tenure and exploit adjuncts, which can only hurt the overall education process.
No wonder many fear the future of our universities is monstrous.
Enter Monsters U, which opens with a brilliant, sweet and funny scene of little Mike Wazowski on a grade-school fieldtrip to the Monsters, Inc. building. It’s there his dreams of becoming a scarer take root, embodied in the Monsters, Inc. hat he receives from one of the scarers.
From there, the film flashes forward to Mike’s first day as a freshman at Monsters University. He’s a scare student, and easily the smartest guy in the class. Sully is introduced as his opposite: the naturally scary guy from a long line of great scarers – essentially a jock who’s not going to work at all.
Mike and Sully are adversaries whose rivalry gets them kicked out of the scaring program. Only by working together and learning what it really takes to scare can they rise to the challenge of winning their place back as the best scarers in the program.
Except they don’t. Because Mike simply isn’t scary. At all.
In a shocking turn (and good for Pixar!), Sully cheats to help Mike and they both get expelled from the program. Most shocking, however, is the film’s conclusion that Mike is not and never will be scary (embodied again in his beloved hat burned to a crisp, along with his dreams).
Mike has all the right knowledge – more than anyone else in the film, and has practiced, put in more work than anyone else. But at the end of the day, he’s genetically incapable of scaring. He lacks something fundamental. He’s not cut out for the scaring program.
Every kid accidentally learns how unfair our institutions really are growing up – especially the nerdy kids like Mike (and me!). Our culture prizes and rewards physical beauty and physical ability(read: good genetics). Our “educational institutions” are run largely by the athletic programs even as they half-heartedly trumpet academic achievement. And ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, even our rulers are chosen largely based on who’s got the winningest complexion.
Yet we tell ourselves everyone is equal, that anyone can be anything as long as they want it badly enough and try really, really hard.
We’re not honest about the nature of our institutions, or how much our natures shape our places in our alleged meritocracy. We haven’t done the hard work of honestly evaluating the script we give our kids – a script that includes colleges and degrees and six-figure salaries waiting for us on the other side.
As we watch those scripts prove false in the face of economic collapse, political corruption and bipartisan self-aggrandizement, a film like Monsters University can be a breath of fresh air. It carefully shows us how ugly our institutions are, and offers us some slight hope for the future:
In a return to those days of yesteryear, Mike and Sully take jobs in the mailroom at Monsters, Inc. – an entry-level job they previously scoffed at along with all their university friends. Mike earns his way to the scare floor he’d always dreamed of not by achieving a scaring degree, but through good old fashioned hard work, climbing the ladder.
Monsters University is a quintessential American Dream story, sidetracked by a university that did nothing for either candidate.
What does Monsters University ask us to believe? That a university education is unnecessary? Probably not – the professors aren’t treated like idiots, nor is the educational environment. But as all good college films do, Monsters University shows us that a lot of education happens outside the classroom, and that academic knowledge isn’t the only kind of knowing that matters. And it does so without devaluing academic achievement – Mike is still, after all, a hero!
Pixar seems to offer hope and challenge to all those young viewers for whom the college experience may simply be unattainable by the time they graduate from high school. It reminds us that success shouldn’t be measured in degrees. And with the future of education in our country uncertain, that’s not the worst message we could hear.