Monsters University is a deceptively countercultural film that, unlike most children’s entertainment today, will probably do kids some real good. The film is about two unlikely partners who meet at a college that teaches monsters how to be scary. Mike is a little monster who is, unfortunately for him, as cute as he is driven to be scary. Sully is a natural-born scarer, a big furry beast with horns who comes from a legendary family of scarers, but unlike Mike, he skates on his own natural ability and never applies himself to his studies. The two are natural rivals, but eventually learn to abandon their own dreams of individual success and team up.
Pixar’s latest plot is a lot more profound than it appears. The typical kids’ movie would see Mike, though tiny and cuddly, upend expectations and become the school’s top scarer, and would probably reveal Sully as a soft-hearted poet pressured by his family to be scary. The two would follow their dreams against social perceptions and find their places in careers that may be unlikely for their appearance, but line up perfectly with their internal ambitions. But Monsters U sticks true to life. First of all everybody wants to be a scarer. It’s just the cool thing to be. Mike’s doggedness impresses all, even winning Sully over to believe that he deserves the crown of top scarer, but in a pivotal scene, Dean Hardscrabble, the severe head of the Scaring Department delivers a wet blanket of truth:
“[Mike] what you lack simply cannot be taught. You’re just not scary”
I don’t want to ruin the rest of the film for you, but suffice it to say that Monsters U never indulges in any fantastical reversal of its characters’ natural, inborn limits. Some unlikely characters do indeed find out that they can be great scarers, but Mike’s journey is to discover that he cannot, and to learn to be satisfied with another role than the one he always dreamed he would have.
Monsters U may not have the crackle and pop of Pixar’s usual AAA material, but its message is a useful one for children. The typical message we like to sell our kids on when they’re young is “you have it within your power to be anything you want to be.” This is fine as far as it goes, but growing up is often an experience that teaches us that personhood comes with limits, that due to our upbringing, circumstances, or maybe even our genetics some options are simply closed to us, even if it’s that one thing you want above all others. Monsters U deals with the latter reality, and familiarizes kids with growing up, (and the concept of college, which is also valuable in itself). Self esteem can be a harsh taskmaster, because it says that if you are not achieving your dreams, then your life is deficient. Monsters U will help youngsters know and accept their limitations and learn to celebrate the talents of others without the envious need to achieve all things for themselves.