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Sequels or prequels of hit movies tend to make fans both excited and nervous. The stakes are even higher with sequels for kids. If the first movie managed to be one of those miraculous gems of entertainment, kid-safe content, and positive values, the odds are pretty heavily against the follow-up flick matching the same standards.
As the prequel to the astoundingly popular and family-friendly Monsters, Inc., Monsters University has likely had more than one parent scared—frightened that their child might be disappointed, the content harmful, or that the second film wouldn’t be nearly as bearable to watch one hundred times with their little one. Parents, relax and get some sleep tonight. Pixar puts fears to rest with another cute, funny, and mostly harmless story about likable monsters and the important lessons they learn.
Since a life-changing field trip to Monsters, Inc., Mike Wazowski has wanted only one thing—to attend Monsters University (MU) and become a professional “scarer.” Mike’s determination and hard work pay off, gaining him admission to the respected university and even to the scarer major program.
Mike quickly learns, however, that getting in is not the tough part. Staying in the program becomes the next goal when Mike and the other students are informed that they will be eliminated from the program if they fail the final exam at the end of the semester.
If knowledge and studying can secure a spot, Mike will be in. He studies more and works harder than any other student and shines as the teacher’s favorite in the classroom, piping up with all the right answers. Mike receives more motivation from his antithesis, James P. “Sulley” Sullivan. As the son of a famous scarer, Sulley brings an impressive pedigree to school and plans on riding his family name right through to graduation. Sulley is also gifted with the size, appearance, and roar of a top-notch scarer.
Both Sulley and Mike are in for a reality check when one of their conflicts gets them in trouble with the scariest of monsters who also happens to be the dean of MU. While Sulley finds out that his natural abilities and ancestry are not enough to guarantee his spot at MU, Mike is told that he does not have what it takes to ever be scary (i.e., he doesn’t look frightening enough to become a professional scarer).
The threat of getting kicked out of the program or even the school prompts Mike to aim for his last chance—the school’s scaring competition. If Mike can prove through the competition that he is the school’s best scarer, then he will be allowed to continue at MU. The trouble is, the competition requires teams, and the whole team has to win together or not at all.
That’s bad news for Mike, since the only team he can find is composed of rejects from the scarer program. Mike reluctantly allows Sulley on the team, as well, because they need to meet the required number of team members for the competition. As Mike and Sulley butt heads and their inept team members live up to their reputations, hopes of winning the contest and staying at MU grow dim. In the end, their only real hope will be found in learning how to work as a team and value each others’ differences.
Having proven capable of producing the best children’s movies in content and quality, Pixar (here teamed with Disney) has set the bar high enough that the production company does not always live up to its own standard (see Brave for a prime example of content failure). Perhaps Pixar is on the road to recovery from the Brave disappointment, since Monsters U manages to steer clear of most of the pitfalls that marked that problematic film.
Some preview trailers for Monsters U indicated that the movie would be heavy on slapstick and wild college experiences, but the actual film is age-appropriate for young audiences. Some slapstick does pepper the picture, though not to an extensive degree. The worst of the comedic violence, injuries, etc., comes in two incidents. In one scene, the teammates of Mike and Sulley whack them a few times with a paddle as part of an initiation ceremony. The ceremony is saved from being too dark and problematic when it is hilariously interrupted by another unexpected character.
The other moment of slapstick that gets out of hand also provides the film with its only incident of crude body humor. During the scare contest, teams are required to run through a course that is littered with spikes that cause pain and swelling to whatever part of the body with which they come in contact. While the pain is downplayed, the swelling becomes the comedic element that leads to an inappropriate moment in which a character’s buttocks (covered by clothing) are briefly shown as they inflate to an abnormal size.
The filmmakers also failed to keep the movie completely harmless by the inclusion of some mildly offensive language. These include a couple uses of “darn” and several of “oh my gosh.” Other elements that may concern parents include the college party scenes, in which students are shown drinking from cups (the beverage in them is never unidentified) and one student is shown sleeping (or perhaps passed out) on a sofa. These scenes, while seemingly harmless in themselves, could contribute to young kids’ indoctrination into the “normalcy” of partying in high school and college.
These missteps, as well as the frightening aspect of a few scaring scenes, should have earned Monsters U a PG rating. The movie’s emphasis on positive messages, however, enables Monsters U to still come out a winner for families. The most prominent of these is that of teamwork and friendship. Both Mike and Sulley have A-type personalities that drive them to battle for leadership and dominance among their peers. Through trial and error, they learn that teamwork is a better way to reach their goals.
As a result, Mike and Sulley soften into more compassionate individuals, becoming less selfish as they also learn to value others’ differences, rather than judging or demeaning them. The best friendships, they discover, come from being the best kind of friend. And, sometimes, friendships are found in the least likely places.
Other valuable messages are also touched on, including a strong condemnation of cheating. This theme is slightly compromised by the disregard for rules and authority that Mike and Sulley demonstrate when they break in to restricted areas and buildings. While cheating is heartily punished, these incidents of rule breaking and break-ins end positively for the characters, thus missing a teaching moment for them and viewers.
Still, the much stronger emphasis on friendship and teamwork overcomes the falter in otherwise uplifting themes. Fans of Monsters, Inc. may recognize that these themes are highly familiar, since they are the same that anchored the first film’s story. Recycling themes does not live up to Pixar’s creative standards, but, in this case, the message is worth repeating.
Thus, while not as original in its themes as Monsters, Inc., the Monsters U screenplay still demonstrates creativity in the new elements of the story. The Pixar take on monster college life is clever and often hilarious, while the filmmakers also aim to tackle important issues like popularity, acceptance, and friendship. The writers do an excellent job of honoring the original Monsters film and referencing fans’ favorite characters and moments. Hints of the future, in this case the first movie, are threaded throughout the fun backstory.
Pixar’s animation is also as scarily perfect as always. Highlights include the animated rendering of “real world” objects, such as buses, cars, and a forest. Scores of new monsters further demonstrate the creativity of Pixar’s animators, as there seems to be no end to the monstrous creations they can produce.
The characters’ animation is made all the more convincing by a talented cast. Billy Crystal and John Goodman return to excellently reprise their roles as Mike and Sulley, respectively. Crystal is particularly impressive, giving Mike a terrific range and forming him into the emotional core of the film. Helen Mirren comes on board for this prequel, showing that her expansive repertoire encompasses playing nuanced antagonists with only her voice.
Prequels and sequels are seldom as good as the original film. Since Monsters U is a prequel, the story is limited in the extent to which the characters can grow and change—they cannot, of course, outgrow their starting point in Monsters, Inc. As a result, the development of Mike and Sulley, the lessons they and their monster world learn, do not reach the import of the messages conveyed in Monsters, Inc.
At the end of this tale, Mike and Sulley are still proponents of fear—scaring kids to create the power their monster world needs. But, they are also kinder, less selfish individuals who are starting to learn the meaning of friendship. With fearless parental guidance, your kids can walk away from this film with the same kind of positive change.
“A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity.”
– Proverbs 17:17 (ESV)
Check out these similar titles:
Monsters, Inc. (Pixar, 2001)
Up (Pixar, 2009)
The Incredibles (Pixar, 2004)
For more ideas, check out our What to Watch page!