Characters, Relationships, and FEELINGS―Where Monsters University Fails to Impact
This article contains spoilers for Monsters University and for its companion film, Monsters, Inc.
When I was but a wee college dropout languishing through the awkwardness of the early twenties, I saw a movie called Monsters University, and I thought it was pretty good. Admittedly, it struck a particular emotional chord with me by putting forth the message that while going to a good school and using it as a springboard for a Successful Future was ONE way to play the game of life, it wasn't the ONLY way. This was honestly something I really needed to hear at this point in my life, and I appreciated the hell out of it. I wouldn't call it a perfect movie, but I would call it a movie that spoke to me.
These days, as a slightly older college dropout who spends a large amount of time indoors, I get up to watching and reading a fair number of people telling me about their cinematic likes and dislikes. And as it turns out, a lot of people did not like Monsters University. It made me wonder if maybe I was wrong somehow. Maybe I was just remembering it as being a lot better than it actually was. Or maybe I was just blindly eating up a mediocre film without actually realizing that it was mediocre. Maybe I just wasn't using my critical thinking skills. Maybe I was putting way too much thought into other people's opinions. (To be fair, this is something I tend to do.)
But a recent Twitter discussion got me thinking this over again, and it brought up all these FEELINGS that I had for this movie when I first saw it, when I first showed it to my partner at the time, when I first decided that maybe being a college dropout wasn't synonymous with being irredeemably doomed. And as we all know, FEELINGS are a great basis for long-winded analytical discussions. Well, that and copious amounts of alcohol, but when that's in short supply, we can always rely on FEELINGS to get us there.
Monsters University starts off by introducing Mike Wazowski (who will henceforth be referred to as Mike so that I don't have to keep trying to spell that last name) and providing the groundwork for his lifelong dream to become a professional scarer. Throughout his life, Mike is met with constant opposition as he strives to meet his goal. Not only is he bullied by his classmates both as a child and as a college freshman, he's told by multiple adults that his dream is unrealistic. Complicating matters is the fact that on some level, Mike's dream is unrealistic, because he just isn't scary enough to be the traditional "world's greatest scarer" archetype that he admires so much. In the climax, he has to come to terms with the reality that the specific path he's been pursuing for most of his life isn't one that's going to work out for him, which is a terrifying thing to have to face at any point in time, let alone as a college student.
Now granted, this is all taking place in a fantastical world populated by strange monsters that basically prey on humans for survival. But the concept of a bright-eyed child proudly proclaiming what they want to be when they grow up is a simple, universal concept. It's very easy for the audience to slip into those shoes because most if not all of them have been there at some point. Somewhat ironically, the cartoon movie about monsters managed to really capture all these emotions and feelings and moments that we can all relate to on, well, on such a human level. These aren't things that only affect certain people; they can affect everyone.
However, the word human in the above thought ultimately serves to highlight the movie's biggest weaknesses as well. Monsters University does a great job of giving its main characters a believable relationship and internal struggles that anyone could relate to, and it pairs them with a college setting that could easily fit into our world, at least on a visual level. But this is all juxtaposed with the monster world, which is of course very different from our world and in fact only exists because the screams of children power it. (That last bit is actually pretty horrifying when you think about it, huh?) And despite its admirable efforts, the combination of the two doesn't always work.
Now wait a minute, you might be saying. Monsters, Inc. did the exact same thing and it was way better received! They did do the exact same thing, didn't they? Well, no, not exactly.
Monsters, Inc. is also a powerfully emotional movie, and its strength lies in the relationships between its characters. Sulley and Boo, Sulley and Mike, even the more antagonistic bonds like Sulley and his respective relationships with Randall and Waternoose: these bonds have an impressive level of depth and care paid to them, and it shows. The actions of all these characters coming together and clashing are what drive the plot forward, while the setting contributes to these actions but never dominates the film. The driving question throughout of how badly the human Boo's presence in the monster world will fuck things up is always present, and the energy crisis is central to the motives of the film's antagonist, but these things aren't constantly driven into the viewer's face, either. Sulley's growing love for Boo, or the argument that Sulley and Mike have later in the film, or the mentorship Waternoose extends to Sulley that ultimately ends up twisted and dissected―these are front and center. These are what make the film.
So how did Monsters, Inc. do this while Monsters University failed? Well, as it turns out, it's all about how you handle the world-building. Monsters, Inc. establishes the monster world pretty early on and gets enough details set up that you don't have to ask too many logical questions, and then it starts slamming you with all the feelings. Monsters University frontloads all its big emotions right out of the gate and then tries to build the world around it. The former approach led to a critically-acclaimed thing of beauty; the latter led to a film that, while not universally despised or unsuccessful by any means, just doesn't have the same charm as its predecessor did.
There are a number of colorful and fun side characters in Monsters University, and the origins of the friendship between Mike and Sulley is charming to watch, but these are never really the main focus of the film. At its core, Monsters University is about Mike vs. society. This is not an inherently bad thing to base a film around, and I don't think it's necessarily poorly done, but it is a markedly different focus, and it leads to a lot of the character interactions that were so essential to the first film getting sidelined. Most egregiously, Randall is introduced as Mike's first roommate and immediate friend, but then he gets demoted to extra so quickly that his eventual turn to antagonist doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It ends up being kind of disappointing when you compare it to the genuinely heartwrenching moments that the first film had, and I think that's how a lot of people ended up feeling.
Like I said, I don't think Monsters University is a bad movie, and I fully appreciated the film's ultimate message: that there isn't just one prescribed path to success in life, that you don't have to follow the narrative of going to school and coming out as a productive member of society in order to get somewhere. But I can also see why the film didn't quite have the same impact as Monsters, Inc. With the monster society itself taking center stage as the second player in the film's main conflict, it ends up leaving the viewer with a whole bunch of logical questions, such as why Mike is the only monster in the entire film to not be scary enough to cut it as a monster when the entirety of Oozma Kappa exists. (Because let's be real: I like the Oozma Kappa gang, but most of them are not exactly scary either.) Or why, if Mike really is the only monster lacking any unique "scary" trait, they even let him waste his time for a semester in the scare program. Or how that one slug that spent the whole year on the lawn even made it through life at all.
It tried. Monsters University tried. But it had some big hurdles to work against―it deviated from the character-driven focus of the first film, and it was also a prequel when literally everyone was clamoring for a sequel. And in the end, it will never be as well-loved as Monsters, Inc. But I personally still think Monsters University is enjoyable enough, with a great cast and some touching moments and a theme that can really resonate with someone who's been told that they have to go to a good school or else they will be a massive disappointment and never get anywhere. It doesn't have the same amount of sheer raw FEELINGS of the first film, but it does have some of its own.
All screenshots come from Animation Screencaps.