"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Monsters University

Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman                        By Steve Norton
Directed by Dan Scanlon                                            Rating: **** (out of 5)

In Monsters University, Disney’s beloved Mike and Sully want to take you back to school.

Really back to school.

Released 12 years after Monsters Inc. first introduced us to Mike and Sully, Monsters University transports us back many years before that to their school days. Releasing a prequel over a decade after the original charmed audiences is always a risky decision, especially for an animated film. Still, in Monsters University, director Dan Scanlon (Cars) manages to strike a balanced tone of comedy and heart that both honours its predecessor and explores new territory as well.

Having always dreamt of being a full-time scarer, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) enrolls in Monsters University (or MU), determined to study hard and prove to the world ‘what [he] can do’. It is here that he meets young James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a gifted slacker with a family legacy for scaring. Although we know them as best friends later in life, here the two monsters instantly dislike one another and quickly develop a rivalry to prove their scaring prowess. However, after an incident takes place that threatens their education, Mike and Sully decide (begrudgingly) to join local fraternity Oozma Kappa and take part in the Scare Games, a set of challenges designed to reveal Monsters University’s best scarers.

Although the film is certainly of the ‘college movie’ genre, Monsters University does have more to offer. At its heart, MU contains a positive message about the nature of community and the value of others.  Although each sorority seems to fall into different clich├ęs (i.e. the jocks, the sisterhood, the bullies), Mike, Sully and the rest of Oozma Kappa stand out for their distinct oddities. Far from the elite, the students of Oozma Kappa—or, significantly known as ‘OK’—appear (almost) blissfully unaware of their social deficiencies. (A two-headed monster where only one half is a dance major? A student with parental-attachment issues?) Unaware, that is, until Mike and Sully bring their ambitious dreams of being professional scarers into the fraternity. In doing so, the Oozma Kappas quickly find themselves in over their head as they attempt to compete with the MU’s best and brightest.  Nevertheless, as the film progresses, the boys from OK begin to discover the value of their inherent ‘oddness’. While watching professional scarers at work, Mike points out that “what makes them great is that they use their differences as their strengths.” In moments like this, the film recognizes not only the value of others and their differences but also that, when brought together in humility and purpose, they are able to accomplish greatness together as well.

Ideas such as this resonate deeply with the heart of Scripture when one understands that God Himself creates community. Beginning when Adam is told that it wasn’t ‘good for him to be alone’, God has continuously emphasized the importance of connectedness amidst difference. United in Christ and His heart for reconciliation, everyone is invited to find equality and healing. Similarly, the different abilities of each person are recognized as invaluable to one another, even offering special attention to the ‘outcasts’. For example, Paul writes that “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Cor. 12:24b-25) Films like Monsters University exemplify this trait of the Kingdom effectively by recognizing that community starts around something that draws people together (in this case, Oozma Kappa and the Scare Games) but maximizes its impact when the individuals collectively allow themselves to shaped by it, especially when that unifier is Christ Himself.

Without question, Monsters University is a family comedy with heart. While not one of Pixar’s top films, it does manage to recapture glimmers of them at their best by getting beyond typical animated fare and tapping into something unexpected (especially towards the end). In Monsters Inc., it was always apparent that the relationship between Mike and Sully was always one of depth that had clearly been built over time by living together throughout the hardships.

Monsters University provides a window into how those types of friendships begin.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kal-El Among Other gods

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Psalm 118:22)

With the much-anticipated Man of Steel hurtling towards us, there’s much to reflect upon regarding the value of Superman in our culture.  For example, as a Christ metaphor, Superman exhibits the characteristics of the Savior that our world needs.  His purity offers us something to aspire for.  His otherworldly strength and compassion demonstrates himself as one who will keep us safe from supernatural evil.  Though, despite the truth of all of these statements, there is still another important element that is less discussed.

The human race isn’t the only group that needs Superman.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Justice League.

Although the primary emphasis for Superman remains as a salvific force for the human race, he also remains a key figure in DC’s alliance of superheroes.  (In fact, Warner Bros. has gone on record by saying that the fate of the long-awaited Justice League film hinders on the success of Man of Steel.) Interestingly, however, exactly how central a role that may be is a subject of much debate. For years, despite being one of the founding members of the Justice League  (and, arguably, the most powerful), his worthiness as leader of this team of DC’s finest has been questioned openly amongst fans.  Having been accused of being a ‘boy scout’, Superman’s ‘small-town morals’ and relentless pursuit of truth often fly in opposition of other, more ‘progressive’ members of the team.

While Superman may be only one member of this very diverse group of heroes, the truth is that Justice League would be a very different team without him at the helm.  Could the team truly function properly if centered around Batman’s vigilante nature and moral ambiguity? Would the team remain as grounded if led by Green Lantern and his cockiness? The Flash’s immaturity and impulsiveness? (In some ways, a sound case can be made for Wonder Woman yet she seems to lack the charisma necessary.) Despite their many positives, all of these superhero legends contain very visible character flaws that hinder their leadership abilities.

Superman, however, exudes a character that creates an element of stability to a team that, if weak in leadership, could become volatile. For instance, his commitment to serving others and sacrificing himself to protect humanity reveals a God-like humility that allows him to recognize the value of others, despite their differences. As a result, he inspires the best in his fellow heroes, encouraging them to work together for the good of humanity instead of themselves. Similarly, his lack of compromise and unwavering moral centre helps call the Justice League to a higher ethical standard (one that, say, Batman has little interest in serving). In other words, by centering itself on Superman, the Justice League automatically develops a sense of moral accountability that it needs to lead benevolently. In fact, other than simply being unpopular in today’s ethically ambiguous cultural climate, one would be hard pressed to find any particularly glaring character flaw within the Son of Krypton.

And, it’s for this reason that Superman is the very cornerstone of the Justice League.

Historically, the ‘cornerstone’ refers to the first brick laid in the construction of a building’s foundation. The importance of this stone increases due to the fact that all other pieces are placed in reference to this one piece. In essence, this brick quickly becomes the basis of the entire foundation. Theologically, this principle has also been used in Scripture in reference to the household of God that was “built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Eph. 2:20; NIV) In Biblical examples like this, the author seeks to draw attention to the fact that Jesus is the foundation of our faith and the reference point that we build our lives upon. Without Jesus, the faith collapses.

In the realm of DC superheroes, however, there is little question that this mantle falls on Superman. Although fictitious, his role in the Justice League reveals the need for Christ-like influences that offer a foretaste of the Kingdom to those around us. In the same way that Superman sets the standard for all members of the Justice League that follow, so too does Christ becomes the very foundation of our faith, offering the example of Godly living.

And that is something everyone must build upon.