The Year(s) the Movie Companies Decided to Keep it Real with Kids

Because I have children, one of whom is a toddler who likes all things that roar, I watch Monsters University on at least a weekly basis. For those who are not subject to the whims and tantrums of a two-year-old, Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters Inc. It was released in 2013, and despite being a prequel, is actually a pretty decent movie.

It includes 3 of the main characters from the original Inc movie:

  • Sully
  • Mike Wasowski
  • Randall Boggs

These characters are voiced by the same actors, the very talented John Goodman, Billy Crystal, and Steve Buscemi. In addition, the movie nabbed other very talented actors, including Helen Mirren and Charlie Day.

The three characters we already know well from Monsters Inc are now younger – for the majority of the movie, they are freshmen in college, attending, as you have probably already guessed – Monsters University.

The music is catchy, the jokes are funny, and the storyline is a coming-of-age story that includes learning to believe in yourself and others, but also recognizing your strengths and coming to terms with not being able to achieve your dreams. The movie begins with a tiny, elementary-school age Mike Wasowski, who maintains his trademark positivity despite being ignored and overlooked by all of his peers, discovering that he wants to be a scarer. It is a dream he holds firm in his heart, and it is his plan to do whatever it takes to become one when he steps onto the campus of Monsters University, brimming with the naivete and optimism that often comes when you still have your entire adult life ahead of you. Nearly everyone he meets either overlooks him, or tells him he does not have what it takes to be a scarer – when he is not simply being dismissed or ignored, he is generally flat-out being told he is not scary. But he just puts his head down, and works harder. He doesn’t go to the college parties, preferring to study to make sure he can pass his final and remain in the scaring program. The one thing that does get under his skin is Sully – the innately talented monster who can likely graduate as a scaring major without even trying. Sully is automatically noticed and admired by other monsters, and is a legacy to boot, with a famous scarer father. Mike has to work so hard to even be noticed, and even then, although he knows the scaring information from textbooks back-to-front, and can pass a written test with flying colors, he’s still… not scary. So someone who is frightening without even trying really gets to him.

Hopefully, you’re less bored than Mickey…

The thing is — everyone else, unfortunately, is right. Mike works the hardest, studies the right stuff, and has a can-do attitude throughout his brief time at university, but… it doesn’t matter. In spite of everything, he is not capable of being a scarer, because he is not capable of being scary. He improves his scaring stances, aces his tests, and even uses his knowledge to coach others into being more capable scarers, but he is still, and will always be, unable to achieve his dream. So a large part of Mike’s journey is actually coming to terms with who he is, and figuring out his new goal.

This lesson is actually fine. Most girls want to be a ballerina, for example, but most girls cannot actually become a professional ballerina. Most girls get breasts, or do not want to study dance with the focus required to become a professional, or get eating disorders that make their bones brittle and unable to actually perform, etc.

Dreams die #keepingitreal

The thing is… Monsters University is not the only children’s film made around this time that deals with needing to understanding yourself and come to terms with not being able to achieve your heart’s deepest desire. In fact, it’s not even the first film that came out around that time with this thesis. Disney came out with another movie in 2012 about a rough guy just doing his job, and hated for it, and hating being hated for it, who befriended a cheeky rascal in a land made out of dessert. Who found out that his job was necessary, and he should keep doing it, but having friends made it bearable. That’s right, folks, a mere year-ish before, Disney released Wreck-It Ralph. Or what about another movie released in 2012 – Disney’s Brave? It is about more than accepting your position, but although Merida decides to make her role as royalty her own, she does have to come to terms with the fact that she is royalty, and that birthed her into certain responsibilities. In fact, failing to come to terms with this in the beginning of the movie nearly causes her to lose her mother forever because the witch she sought help from seems to only know a single spell (and how to carve, I guess). Then, there’s the 2013 Disney release Frozen, in which one of the main characters, Elsa, has to learn how to be honest with herself and others, and not merely isolate herself like an odd, sexy hermit, because she has responsibilities as a sister and a queen that she cannot, and does not want to, shirk. 2012 and 2013 feel like the years someone at Disney decided to explain to children that you can’t always do anything you want, but you can figure out a way to be okay with your employment, whether it’s glamorous like Elsa and Merida, or blue-collar like Ralph and Mike. I’m not necessarily against it, it just feels a little weird that instead of saying, “Keep making good decisions” or “You can be anything you want, if you only believe/work hard enough,” Disney was like, “Life’s not perfect, but you can settle and be cool with that.”

What do you guys think – am I reading too much into what I interpret as a slew of similarly themed movies? Is Monsters University actually terrible? Or am I a smart, savvy chick who has a point? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!