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Monsters University

Monsters University

Knowledge Brings Fear, and a whole
multicoloured menagerie of characters
designed by marketers

dir: Dan Scanlon

I know, I know. I start practically every other review pointing out that the film I’m about to review shouldn’t really exist, but I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Monsters University is the prequel we didn’t really need to have, but it’s still very, very welcome to me. I watched it with my daughter, and she thought it was great. This is, after all, school holiday time, and not taking your daughter to the cinema, even for a deadbeat dad like me, would be tantamount to monstrous negligence.

She specifically wanted me to quote her in the review, and she even told me how I should depict that quote. She told me to put her name at the start of a sentence, with the two dots on top of each other after the name. You know, a colon, as thusly:

Dawn: "Monsters University is a good film because most films are about normal days with a character that wants to be different but Monsters University was about a few characters who wanted an achievement but when they got that achievement it ended up different but they still enjoyed the gift that the achievement had given them plus Monsters University is great."

I can’t argue with that. That's a verbatim quote. I mean I can, but I’m probably outgunned, and who wants to lose to a six-year-old in an argument? The crying, the screaming, and then there’s no telling what she’d do in response.

Monsters Uni was very enjoyable to me even if it seemed constructed from American college clichés. It included almost every cliché that exists from the last forty years of college high jinks movies except for the sexual ones, so no panty raids and no drunken debauchery, thanks very much.

It’s not even really lifting from Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds directly; it’s lifting from the parodies of the parodies arising from those flicks. The Simpsons has had long-running gags about these flicks, either the nudey-rudey ones or the Rodney Dangerfield Back to School type ones with poncy, apoplectic deans, bands of excluded misfits and snooty aristos ODing on their own sense of oily entitlement. And then Futurama parodied those parodies of parodies with its Mars University – Robot House shenanigans. Now Monsters University lifts from the Simpsons/Futurama lifting from Revenge of the Co-Ed Boner Academy Part III which lifted from…

Even then – even then I didn’t mind it. The references are stripped of their dirtier aspects and cleaned up for the kiddie audience. This is, after all, Pixar, which means Disney. Therefore, it’s only about good, clean, pure aspiration to a better life.

Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is a tiny green Cyclops as a child. He’s excluded, ignored, and mostly unheard. As a monster, he’s pretty cute, which possibly means the opposite in a monster-led universe. Where being scary is the prime attribute, being cute, little and funny is an obvious disability.

In such a world, the highest value is in being scary, with the entire economy being based on scaring children of the human world in order to generate scream energy. It constitutes the greatest ‘good’, with scarers being the equivalent of rock stars, business leaders and football legends simultaneously. Everyone else is just an adjunct, a hanger-on, a handmaiden to the master race of their betters, and who are we to argue with the social order?

Mike aspires to be a great scarer, like the monsters he idolises, but everyone and everything in this universe keeps telling him that he’s not cut out for it, and that he should just give up, for the love of sweet monster Jesus, just give up.

But Mike’s not going to accept that. He’s Rudy, after all. Who’s Rudy, I hear you ask, bored Australian readers who haven’t consumed enough American pop culture of the last twenty years to know? Why, he’s Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger, as played by Sean Astin in the film of the same name, about a short, dumpy guy who moved heaven and earth in order to play college football at Notre Dame, despite being way too short, way too light, and looking a lot like one of the fatter hobbits from the Lord of the Rings films.

Everyone told him he’d never make it, that he’d never play. And in the end, out of pity, and after the pressure of his teammates on the coach, they let him play for a few brief seconds, letting him achieve his lifelong, pointless dream of playing once in a college football game.

What do you do after that, I wonder? If I devoted my life to skating once at the Dubbo Ice Skating Under Sixteen’s Regional Semi-Final, and did so, then so what? The world would keep spinning on its axis, the sun would keep rising and setting, and life for most of us would go on. And then you’d have to start on the horrible work of figuring out what to do with the rest of your life.

Is our hero Mike made of the right stuff, just like Rudy? Of course he is, otherwise there’s no story. Otherwise the protagonist would just be like the rest of us, aspiring to stuff and giving up before we’ve even put the slightest effort into it. It never would have worked out, other people had an unfair advantage, I’ll do it tomorrow, the excuses combine, congeal, set us free, thank the gods.

Mike is made of sterner stuff. He forges onwards, not oblivious to what other people see as his shortcomings, but utterly determined to achieve his goal of being a scarer at Monsters Incorporated all the same. Yes, I know, considering the first film, we know where he ends up, and we never were that curious as to how, but they manage to imbue his aspirations with pathos, by arraying a whole world of opposition against him.

The powers that be, or are, don’t do it because it’s necessary, for anyone’s protection, or because they have to. They do it, whether it’s the snooty fraternity types, the snooty sorority types, the goths or the jocks, literally called Jox, because hearing Mike aspire offends them. The dean of the university, Dean Hardscrabble (Dame Helen Mirren), is disgusted by the prospect of Mike even being in her university, let alone in the Scare Program, and does all in her power to see his dreams die.

They are monsters, after all.

He should know his place. He should stick to his caste, surely. It’s for others to be wonderful, like the James Sullivans (John Goodman) of the world, an imposing beast with natural talent and a prestigious family name. Sulley and Mike are therefore natural enemies. Mike puts in more effort than is monstrously possible, and Sulley resents it, putting in no effort himself.

The whole science of scaring is really belaboured, but I guess makes sense considering its centrality to their existence. The fact that there are entire courses devoted to the intricate construction of who to scare and how means that Mike has an advantage because of the study he’s obsessively focussed on. He also has an innate strategic ability to use the environment to achieve something, rather than being able to do it solely through his own physical efforts. I wonder if that’s a possible way forward for him?

Sulley just blunders through, usually achieving easily what it takes Mike sustained effort to do, and even then Mike’s effort and achievements are ignored in the face of Sulley’s charisma and pedigree. Doesn’t that just burn you up inside, those of you who never got into a prestigious college, who watch as those from fancier families and connected bloodlines casually stride past you with minimal effort when your own herculean efforts are rendered laughable?

It’s enough to make you want to drop out and drink yourself stupid for the next forty years of your truncated life. Well, maybe not you, because you’re a high achiever, but the rest of us…

You may wonder what any of this has to do with kids, who, you’d think, are the target market/demographic, since there are all the bright colours and the plush merchandising opportunities and whatnot all over the place. Well, none of that probably speaks to kids in the slightest, unless they’re genius kids who are graduating from Harvard at age eight. And they’re not going to relate to Mike, because their awesomeness has been identified and applauded from when they were still a zygote, and Mike would just seem like the clods born to serve gods like them.

Kids do understand exclusion, they understand group dynamics, they understand really wanting to do something or be something, and being told they’re aiming too high or that it’s just not right for them. They understand straining and reaching, biting off more clichés than they can chew, and the more mature ones understand that achieving that ‘impossible’ dream takes lots and lots of sustained effort, regardless of natural talents and entitlement, and overbearing parents trying to live through them.

Monsters University, and, I’m really surprised to say this, finds a really sweet way to tell its story about reaching for your dreams at all costs, being brought up short by reality, and then working fifteen times harder to achieve those goals in different ways. It’s a stolid, boring message, but a strong one all the same. The end of the flick, after an array of adventures and flustered activity reminiscent of a dishonoured frat somehow redeeming itself through a stupid competition, then sets all that goofy stuff aside, and shows what Mike and Sulley really did to earn their place on the Scare Floor at Monsters Incorporated, and those five minutes at the end say more than the preceding hour and a half.

Sure it looks fine, and it’s pretty entertaining throughout, though not as much of a rollicking and inventive ride as the first flick was. There were a fair few bored kids in the cinema when I saw it, as evidenced by their irritating running around, either that or their parents don’t hit them enough.

My favourite moment of the flick is where a fairly mumsy monster drops off a bunch of guys including Mike and Sulley at Monsters Inc., for a midnight field trip, and the mumsy monster tells them that she’ll just wait for them here, listening to her music. Of course the music that plays is the brutal sounds of Mastodon, one of my favourite bands, juxtaposed in absurdity against her homemaker image of curlers and housedresses. I laughed out loud and Dawn asked me “Why is that funny?”

I didn’t really have an answer, but it was.

I really enjoyed it, and my daughter did too, so that’s 2 votes at least in its favour.

8 times I wonder whether I could have played with the Fighting Irish if only I tried hard enough, or if I just gave a good goddamn about sport out of 10

“I'm here to make good scarers great, not make mediocre scarers less mediocre.” – they should have called her Dean Ayn Rand instead, I reckons – Monsters University