Monsters University, Pixar’s prequel to its 2001 feature Monsters, Inc., about monsters who generate renewable energy from the screams of human children which follows the origins of the friendship between Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), is a lovely-looking confection with a number of terrific gags on conventional college life. But it also illustrates a problem that’s plagued a number of Pixar’s more recent outings, particularly the company’s decision to produce a number of sequels and spin-offs, rather than more original features. Pixar movies are at their best when they aren’t afraid of the darkness in relationships like marriage, the ones between parents and children, or even between friends. And Monsters University, for a story about friendship, class, and privilege, gets distracted by the bright colors of fraternity jackets, the shiny domes of campus buildings, and the thrill of intercollegiate competition, and misses out on the raw emotions of college as a result.
When we meet Mike, he’s an eager, but undersized little monster who falls in love with the idea of scaring human children for a living while on a school field trip to Monsters, Inc. After following a professional Scarer into a child’s bedroom and emerging unscathed, the pro tells the student that he’s got what it takes to sneak into and out of kids’ bedrooms, and gives Mike both a Monsters University hat and a dream. Years later, Mike arrives at school, telling his fellow passengers on the bus that “I don’t mean to get emotional, but my entire life has lead up to this point.” But the movie gains momentum when Mike gets upstaged in his first class in the scaring division of MU: while he’s giving a highly-educated answer to a question from the professor, honed by years of obsessive study, Sully shows up late to class, cages a pencil from a fellow student, and upstages Mike with a throaty roar.
But the movie doesn’t quite do enough to draw out their rivalry, which is not merely a question of different styles, Mike’s bookishness contrasted with Sully’s anti-intellectual go-with-your-gut approach. We learn that Sully is from a family of legendary scarers, while Mike is on work-study. While Mike constantly struggles to stand out, both because of his size and his nerdy demeanor, Sully projects effortless cool. But the movie could have done more to draw out how class plays into their respective treatment at Monsters University. When it comes to greek life, for example, Sully’s adoption by the coolest frat on campus, Roar Omega Roar, probably isn’t only a matter of the way Sully carries himself, but the movie doesn’t explore whether Sully’s father was a member, or whether members of the fraternity have more members than the comparatively-ostracized Oozma Kappas. And while there’s one scene of Mike running a floor waxer while hard at the books, Monsters University doesn’t really address how that need to work cuts into Mike’s scare practice, or how it cuts into his studying time or scaring practice. If the movie had been willing to be tougher on class and opportunity, particularly given the resonance of issues like student debt, it might have hit on some real truths about the college experience, whether human or monstrous.
Monsters University also sets up, but never quite develops a rivalry between Monsters University and Fear Tech. There’s some jawing between the professional scarers about which school is better. And Mike and Sully meet when a small animal identified as “Archie the Fear Pig. He’s Fear Tech’s mascot!” bursts into Mike’s room when he’s studying, hotly pursued by Sully. The movie might have done well to explore the contempt that some private university students show for state schools, particularly given a constant threat of washing out of the Scaring program or of expulsion from Monsters University that gives the movie much of its stakes and dramatic tension. What would it mean for Mike and Sully to have to give up the dream of Monsters University for the reality of Fear Tech?
None of this is to say that Monsters University is an outright bad movie. It looks gorgeous, it’s very funny, and a climax that’s a witty commentary on horror movies tropes is awfully enjoyable. But Pixar made its name on movies that cut to the heart. I hope that with its subsequent original movies, the company can find a way to combine its gorgeous fantasies with the human insight that so few other animation studios bother to consider.