Monsters University (2013)

Dir. Dan Scanlon. Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren

The girls are at summer camp. They report something strange is in their cabin. None of them are frightened – in fact, some even seem a little giddy. Regardless, forest rangers and other law enforcement quickly evacuate the girls before heading in. Slowly, quietly, cautiously, they shine their flashlights into the cabin, which has no overhead lights. Almost immediately, unexplainable things start to happen. A fan starts and stops. Footsteps are heard running through the cabin, but there is no evidence of anything there – until huge claw marks suddenly appear on the wall. A bunk in the corner rattles and jumps up and down until it topples over and creates a row of bunkbed dominoes, the last of which falls in front of the door. The way is shut. More footsteps. The rangers back up and then fall suddenly, tripped by fishing line that wasn’t there before. Then, something huge, the size of a bear but perfectly nimble on its hind feet, something horned, in cool colors, drops from the ceiling.

It’s Sulley (Goodman). You know, the guy that a two-year-old went around calling “Kitty” for ninety minutes back in 2001.  Who makes this face at the end of Monsters, Inc. Except this time out, he’s the principal actor of a horror movie – something to scare adults – for a few minutes. The director of that horror movie is Mike Wazowski (Crystal), who is much better known for harumphing and wisecracking. Times have changed.

Monsters University is a collage. It is a university movie for a few moments before it becomes an underdog story before it lapses, briefly, into horror-with-the-puppet-strings, and then back to the underdog. The university movie is the one that I love best, although it’s the one that the kids know the least about. Most of the collegiate gags don’t hit for me; the best one is a throwaway line that Mike has about “nobody reads the college newspaper,” while I can see several human equivalents of the monster who cries, “I worked on that door all semester!” Others, like the slug who can’t get to class, or the monsters increasing in size on the football field, don’t get much of a smile. (The sight of watching Mike wrangle a pig that Sulley stole from Fear Tech is pleasantly goofy if a little stilted.) But the scenes of Mike walking around the Monsters University campus for the first time as an incoming freshman absolutely nail that feeling. It is Pixar’s most underrated emotional grab. Mike walking onto campus (and getting that bad ID picture), realizing that he is now a college student. Mike going to his dorm for the first time, not knowing what his roommate will be like. Mike and Randall going to their first college lecture. The optics of the quad are just right. It’s lovely and nostalgic, but I wish they’d had a little rain at MU.

Most of the final two-thirds take place either in a “frat house” (if you’re willing to call the Oozma Kappa house a frat house, that is), or at some location on campus which could conceivably have been somewhere else: the first Scare Challenge which takes place at some deep grotto, or the last Scare Challenge, which takes place in a half-court grass field with no other purpose that I can think of. It’s what the plot wants – although I think I could watch a movie where Mike and Sulley do nothing but go to class and goof off for four years, I don’t know that anyone else would care to – and yet the film loses the University in the title. It’s more of a Monsters Games.

The film goes to a real extent to show that scaring is the national pastime of the monster world. Where in the first film, the “scare record” is a business accomplishment not unlike being the guy who sold the most encyclopedias last quarter, professional scarers are household names the way that baseball or football players are here. It’s interesting, because all of the footage is grainy black-and-white business that doesn’t appear to be televised outside of the plant, but the Scaring major is far and away the most prestigious of the bunch. No wonder everyone wants to be a scarer; even the bipedal Snuffleupagus-lookin’ professor of scream can design recognizes that his major is not enviable, or even all that valuable, in comparison to Scaring.

The tension which is repeated throughout the movie is that Sulley, to carry on the sports metaphor, is the 6’3″, 225 pounds-of-muscle center fielder who’s a 30/30 threat and a defensive maestro to boot. But his talent and pedigree has made him lazy: he expects to get by just on looking and sounding scary; it’s as if that physical specimen decided to never take batting practice or do skill drills. Mike is the David Eckstein of scaring, except Mike will never make it to the majors: he is simply too marginal on all fronts. His genius is in knowledge and application of scaring technique, not in being able to demonstrate it. Most of us, I think, identify more with Mike than Sulley.

Mike was always, I think, the secret protagonist in Monsters, Inc. even if Sulley gets more of our attention. His nervousness and his desire to abide by the rules, confines, and concerns of his society rather than his lived experience dominate him. Not only does Sulley connect more quickly to Boo (Sulley, of course, “names” her, which leads Mike to declaim, “Once you name it, you start getting attached to it”), but Sulley connects more deeply as well. Mike has little more than a soft tone and a hug to give Boo before she goes home. And when Mike recreates the door, it is not for him to visit Boo, but for Sulley to do so. One of the things which Monsters University does well is to make clear the reasons why Mike is so eager to buy into the groupthink of the monster community: it’s not surprising, when you consider that Mike has made scaring the focus of, almost literally, his entire life. Of course he’s not going to question the “children are poisonous” line or make queries like “Is it ethical to do frighten an Other to collect energy and profit?”

Monsters University feels most interesting when it talks about the scarers and the Scaring School as if they are laudable goals to set and reach. (It’s not more cozy than freshman orientation, but it’s probably more interesting.) This is why prequels are, in many ways, more palatable than sequels in my head: if done well, a prequel can function as the instrument which fills in gaps from the first movie. And Monsters University, to its credit, limits the fanservice. We get the reason why Randall becomes so aggressively nasty to Sulley and Mike, and we also get to hear Roz drop an “Alwaaaays waaatchinnnng.” Mr. Waternoose in ’70s hair shows up for a moment in a picture, as does Celia, and we learn why the Abominable Snowman was banished. It sounds like a lot, but these are fleeting moments, and all of them take place in the last twenty minutes of film time. The last three actually occur in the final montage of the film, which exists to look ahead to Monsters, Inc. anyway. The rest of the narrative is not distracted or bound up in trying to remind people that Monsters, Inc. existed and they liked that movie.

The best of what a prequel can do is summed up in the scene when Mike goes through an experimental door, into a bedroom full of sleeping campers. He wants to prove to himself that he can be frightening – not as scary as Sulley, perhaps, but at least as scary as Art or Don. What he finds out is that he is not scary, but cute; the little girls in their bunks crowd around him and laugh. It makes the last scene of Monsters, Inc. resonate a little further. Mike has tried to be the guy going through the door his entire life; he wanted to be the greatest scarer of all time. At a similar point in Monsters, Inc., though, he’s come through a child’s closet and burps a microphone instead. It’s comforting to see, after two movies of inadequacy, that Mike becomes a top joker (joker? laugher? who knows what they call them.) instead. How nice that he gets to be more than adequate at making people laugh rather than giving people night terrors.

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