05 July, 2013

Review: Monsters University

If you have a kid you've probably already seen this but I want to talk about it anyway. I find the American relationship with children's cinema fascinating because we are so completely uncritical of it. Kid's films are either "bad" or "good enough" or "adult worthy" and not much discussion about the rest of their content occurs. If we do discuss a film aimed at children, we do so (generally) from a point of parenting rather than as a reflection of society. I would argue that children's cinema has more to say than we choose to consider.

To truly review Monsters University I would need three or four viewings. Like other successful Pixar projects it's a blending of standard cinema fare with a candy coating. A little Mission Impossible, a little Rudy, a touch of Generic Frat Film and the time honored odd coupling blend into what falls somewhere between "good enough" and "adult worthy" on the kid scale. At it's heart MU is a sports story. Instead of the kid with a dream making the big leagues he comes to understand that team work is the key to success and a great player is nothing without a great coach. As with other Pixar works there are some lines aimed firmly at Mom and Dad which mostly work well.

Monsters University is selling the American myth of meritocracy. Sully enters MU as a legacy student with a strong family history of success. Used to falling upward, Sully is quickly weeded out and finds his future in danger. He and the little kid with the big dream find themselves on the same footing. Although they succeed at redeeming themselves, they initially do so as a result of Sully's flexible ethics (no surprise to viewers of Monsters Inc.) then as a result of Mike's strong work ethic. Expelled from college,  their dream of being in the big leagues is achieved by starting in the mail room and working upwards. This is a key part of the Pixar success story. Their films often reinforce the myths we tell ourselves as a people while giving them a tweak. Mike won't be a star quarterback but teams need coaches too. Sometimes breaking and entering is the only way to inspire your friends. No matter what you do, you will never look like the Abercrombie models. Standard stuff. Kid's films love to tell you that the least popular are the most worthy. Monsters University dials that up to 11. It's a little too far.

Mike and Sully are forced to join the fraternity no one wants. They compete against the status obsessed old guard, who give Randall the acceptance he craves. It's a strange subtext in Monsters University.  He is not Mike and Sully, therefore his desire to achieve a higher social status is unworthy, it is tainted by the preordained future known to the viewer. Although it is Mike and Sully who impede Randall's successes, it is Randall we are asked to blame. To a viewer who has not seen the prior film, it's an inexplicable shunning that reflects poorly on the lead duo. The other groups are equally cliched. There are the grey toned punks, the beautiful and beautifully matched sorority sisters with terrifying interiors, and the averagely popular. Although some make what appear to be genuine overtures to the misfits, the film makes sure we know it is only to set them up for ever greater humiliations. Outcasts are genuine and supportive, the socially successful are cold to the core. So, at it's heart and despite Randall, Monsters University wants to be an anti-bullying film. Unless you are a bed wetter.

While I did not, a fair number of the world's children suffer from enuresis. All the Pull-Ups and Good-Nites in the world can't cover the societal shame we've inexplicably assigned to the condition. Parents vary wildly, from accepting to enraged. Where some children are taken for medical evaluation, others end up dead. Every year there's an abuse headline with bedwetting as the trigger point. Help boards for parents are full of discipline stories, as though a child's physical development can be changed with the proper chastisement. (My kid is not of average height, so I took away his toys. Why hasn't he started to grow?) Every parent either has a child who struggled with dry nights or has a friend who did. Like any bullying point, the stigma outlasts the ignorance. We know a great deal more about this medical condition than we did in the past. All of that leads up to this - there is a point in the movie where a scare simulator is prepared. The device uses "bedwetter" as the lowest difficulty setting and "heavy sleeper" as the highest. This is like saying you can set the oven at 300 degrees or at 300 degrees. That aside, how many kids in the theater felt that shot in the gut? Here they are, watching an anti-bullying film about hard work leading to success and they get sideswiped by a bedwetting gag. A little shame to sprinkle on their popcorn. Pixar knows better than this and they disappoint me by taking a cheap shot at these kids.

Beyond that, Monsters University is perfectly acceptable. It's a boy-centric crowd pleaser with plenty of comedic moments. (There is no Boo here, all the female characters are either adult authority figures or so far to the side as to be irrelevant.) Your kids will love it. It's unlikely you'll hate it even as the dvd hits the drive for the 15,000th time. It is a perfectly fine film with a lot to say about how we see ourselves and how little we examine our assumptions about who the hero of a story may be.


  1. I took myself to see it in the middle of a weekday afternoon as a reward for .... Something. I had some of the same conflicted feelings (oh...oh hey All The Dudes. Good thing the ladies are safely on their own team. I'd have preferred a co-ed Fraternity/sorority...those existed at my school). I liked the teamwork lesson, and the play to your strengths lesson, and even the authority willing to be proven wrong lesson. I thought the Big Turn moment for Randall wasn't just that he was counter to our heroes, it was when he allied himself with the Mean Kids Who Didn't Know, Like, Or Care Who He Really Was and turned his back on Mike.

    I SO took your point about the bedwetter. I ahem, was one for a lot longer than there are pull-ups for - mostly /because/ I was such a heavy sleeper.

    The cabin scream scene was pretty amazing.

    And you didn't talk about the Umbrella Short!

    1. What did Randall owe Mike? Mike pretty much rejects Randall's needs for community until he is desperate for a team quota filler. At this point Randall has other options. I
      think the entire cupcake sequence is fair proof of that.

      (Right? The oven is 300 or 300! I think my cousin was 11 or 12, most of the kids in the family were 9ish. Skipped over bro and I)

      I didn't love the Umbrella short. It was an interesting experiment in surfaces and expressive animation but it failed as a narrative. It's a variation on a theme they did better last year (the paper planes) while making little logical sense. When you're most of the way down the subway stairs, you don't chase the umbrella in a storm like that, over the distance traveled. It happens that way because it needs to for the telegraphed ending. A cuter end would've been finding out blue and red already live together or some sort of less predictable outcome.

    2. I noticed that moment, too--I had a relative who wet the bed, and was a deep, deep sleeper (it was physilogical--I remember her telling me, when she was only 9, how her doc said it would probably clear up when she hit puberty. AFAIK, her relatives were reasonably supportive, but she made excuses about sleepovers). I had an "aren't we OVER that kind of shaming?" twinge.

      Very mildly related, I kind of hated the joke about the slow, snail-like monster--he doesn't exist in a vacuum, by the time he hits college he KNOWS how slowly he moves, c'monnnnnnn!