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 clichés (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.