Let’s not kid ourselves. YOU ARE GOING TO SEE THIS MOVIE. Unless your kids live under a rock, they are already dying to see it and buy the oodles of merchandise it will generate. And that’s a good thing because this is a fun flick with some big ideas going on in it. So go, strap on a popcorn feedbag, and then talk with your little ones about the core conflict in the movie. What matters more: hard work or talent?
The Setup. Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters, Inc. Once again, Pixar smacks us down in a beautifully animated, candy-colored monster world. As you probably remember from the first movie (and yes – your kids will be confused unless they’ve already seen it), the monster world relies on human screams as its power source. To get those screams, monsters need scarers. Top scarers are the rock stars of the monster world.
We see a young Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) as a nerdy kid who dreams of becoming a scarer. The gateway to that dream is Monsters University (M.U.). A hard worker, Mike gets into M.U., but is too small to scare anyone. Meanwhile, with no effort, the hulking, well-connected Sully (voiced by John Goodman) becomes big man on campus. Furry and blessed with a loud roar, Sully is a natural scarer. He’s smug and a bit cruel to Wazowski. Yes, Sully starts out as a jerk, not a teddy bear.
After a few scenes, karma kicks in, and Mike starts getting props for his hard work while Sully falls behind. The rivals bicker and inadvertently damage a school trophy. M.U.’s Dean Hardscrabble (an icy, formidable Helen Mirren) kicks the duo out of the school’s scare program. And the only way they can make it back in is by uniting as a team – – along with five other misfits whom you will undoubtedly find in Happy Meals and on Target shelves soon.
You may have to deal with some butts wiggling in seats! M.U. drags for the first forty minutes or so. Kids may have trouble seeing where the story is going (they don’t know the college buddy movie playbook as well as we do). But the bigger problem is that, early on, the movie lacks an emotional center. Pixar movies still work best when you have characters who work together and love each other (e.g., Woody needs to get back to Andy; Sully needs to take care of Boo). Here, Sully and Mike spend the first half of the movie being totally self-involved. They wind up caring about each other, but it takes a LONG time to get there.
The movie finally picks up steam when Sully and Mike join forces with the rest of their monster team: a cheerful band of outsiders (all guys – c’mon Pixar, couldn’t you have had one girl pal?). The first lively scene of the movie comes when their team actually starts working together in a school Scare Games challenge, set in a library. Unfortunately [NIGHTMARE ALERT!], the librarian monster in this scene might terrify younger kids. But, hey, you have to desensitize them at some point, right?
I won’t give any spoilers. Suffice it to say, the Sully-Mike team manages to work together, and everything works out well in the end.
Help your kids sort out the work v. talent issue. If you’ve told your kids they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up so long as they work hard, this movie may be a nasty shock. Green Mike studies harder than anyone, but, in the end, he still can’t make it as a scarer. In contrast, Sully coasts on his talent. Ultimately, Sully’s laziness catches up with him, and it is only through what I’ll stuffily call “the dignity of work” that he redeems himself. But still the movie leaves no doubt that talent matters.
For kids, this might be jarring. Kids, especially kids weaned on Disney, expect the world to be fair. If you’re a nervous parent (is there any other kind?) and you hope to send your kid to a human university someday, you should use this movie as a springboard. Use it to discuss the hard work and talent necessary for your kids to succeed in this sometimes unfair life.
P.S. As a Jew with a Chinese husband, I could hear our relatives on both sides shouting that Mike just needed to work HARDER! And I’m sure that Malcolm Gladwell would agree. In his book, Outliers, he argues forcefully that work, not talent, is the key to success. Pick up the book. Or, if you don’t have the time (and, let’s face it, you probably don’t), read the review of it at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/books/review/Leonhardt-t.html?_r=0
P.S.2 Pixar has gone back to sausage fests. This movie has very little on offer for girls: one monster mom character, the domineering dean, and a bevy of indistinguishable cheerleader types. I don’t see why one of Sully and Michael’s team – – one of their friends – – could not have been a girl. But, oh well, we’ll always have Brave.