I didn’t go to see “Monsters University” this past weekend with any intention of writing about it; as a rule, I try to watch films during the end of their run in order to avoid crowded theaters. So this is not a movie review, it’s more of reflection on the amazing feat accomplished by this children’s film, in contrast to the vast majority of false empowerment films offered up as entertainment.
Pixar’s last offering, “Brave,” was marketed as a film with a strong female protagonist, a role model for young girls who very rarely see any positive representations of themselves on the big screen. However, the actual film was a strange mother-daughter bonding road trip movie that said more about childish entitlement issues and selfishness than it did about bravery. If I had a daughter, I would be loathe to point to Merida as a role model. As a character, the amount of growth and change she experiences is minimal, and because she is allowed to get her way in the end, I’m not sure what the overall message is supposed to be. In its most cynical iteration, the ending could be summed up as “don’t worry, kids, you don’t have to make tough choices because your parents will always be there to bail you out in the end.”
“Monsters University” has, at its core, a similar opening theme as “Brave”. In the beginning, Sully possesses a lot of the same selfishness and entitlement issues as Merida, while Mike has Merida’s problem with authority figures telling him what he can and cannot do. The audience is meant to root for Mike as the underdog with big dreams, just as we are supposed to sympathize with Merida’s quest to live her life the way she wants to. However, both perspectives are unrealistic. What makes “Monsters University” a strong film is the fact that it is tough on its protagonists; it gives them no shortcuts or free passes to their emotional growth. You watch these characters grow and change; their worldview shifts in increments as they accrue scars, both literal and psychological. Mike’s final realization is a moment that reminded me of Biff from “Death of A Salesman,” albeit in cute, kid-friendly animated form. He comes to grips with his limits, as well as his strengths, and sets off on a path quite different from the one he started with.
In sharp contrast to “Brave,” the ending of “Monsters University” does not hand its protagonists their desires on a silver platter. They are forced, like most of us in real life, to settle for less. When they do achieve, it is because of their hard work and perseverance. No one awards Sully a job as a scarer–he starts at the bottom, in the mail room. Mike never becomes an actual scarer at all. It is amazing to see a children’s film that actually admits that yes, sometimes we don’t get what we want, and that yes, there are limits to our talents and abilities. But that does not mean that we cannot make this life a good one. “Monsters University” provides a refreshing, much needed sense of perspective that all kids need, especially in a culture like ours that aggressively sells the idea that talent and hard work automatically equals success.
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “Maybe I can change”