Why the lessons in ‘Monsters University’ are Pixar’s most bold yet


If you don’t care about the end being discussed, then by all means read on…

My wife and I saw Monsters University on Friday and both loved it. Many of the Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes however, seemed to miss the point of the film entirely.

“This is a safe, predictable, edge-free, nearly bland effort from a studio that rarely hedges its bets.” – Richard Roeper

“[It] conforms to [Pixar’s] apparent drift toward the average, with toy sales taking priority over originality.” – Liam Lacey

“Monsters University is cute, and funny, and the animation, though not exactly inspired, is certainly colorful.” – Steven Rae

“Mostly memorable for being fine but forgettable.” – Betsy Sharkey

Since 1995, Pixar has dominated computer animated filmmaking. They constantly win Academy Awards (9 nominations, 7 wins for Best Animated Feature) and are universally praised for their efforts by the critics. Nearly each Pixar movie has a handful of lessons or dominant themes it tries to teach and tell.

However, after seeing MU and reading the critical reviews, I was shocked how many reviewers missed the point of the film and the important lessons Pixar chose to address in the film. You could even make the argument that the lessons in MU are more bold than any previous Pixar film. Which leads to why MU is ultimately about failure and why that’s okay.

Obviously, as this is a movie about college, there are your typical and inherent lessons for the characters (finding your place, growing up, building friendships), but the most important and surprising lesson is watching Mike Wazowski fail. This lesson is a particularly unique and groundbreaking approach for the age groups in Generation Y (Millennial) and Z. Generational scholar and author Ron Alsop argued that the Millennial generation is a group of “trophy kids”, who were given rewards just for participating. I’m a Millennial and like many of my friends growing up, we all received gold stars on our homework, ribbons for events, etc. constantly rewarding us for just doing our job. You could also argue we’ve been constantly told that we could achieve anything we want if we just worked hard. We were told there was no way we could fail. This is the definitive issue that MU tackles head-on.

From the age of little monster, Mike is enthralled with the career of being a scarer – the job that every monster dreams of. It’s for the cream of the crop. Mike is told continually as a small monster that he’s too small and not scary enough to succeed. It’s only after he sneaks into a live door on the Monsters, Inc. scare floor that people believe he’s capable of great things. He uses that moment to work hard and get into Monsters University to study at the School of Scaring.

The main plot is the competitive nature between the hard-working Mike and the famous-last-name Sullivan. Their antagonistic rivalry drives the story until they are forced to work together to get back into the School of Scaring. Like all feel good movies, Mike and Sullivan ultimately save the day, win the Scare Games and are cheered and admired amongst everyone at the school. They defeat the oppressive Dean and defy expectations, the day is theirs! But it’s right then that the writers (Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon) drastically changes things.

Sullivan admits to cheating to help his team of lovable losers win and save face for Mike who he believes isn’t scary. When Mike finds out, he breaks into the door testing laboratory to prove to himself that he is indeed scary. However, he quickly learns that he does not in fact scare the kids in the cabin. Crushed, Mike goes to the nearby lake and wallows in self-pity. Everything he’s dreamed about and worked for has been for naught – he’s failed to be scary, what society tells them is the only thing monsters should be. In the end Mike accepts this and along with Sully works his way from the mailroom at Monsters Inc. to the scare floor where we find him and Sully in Monsters, Inc.

While this journey from the mailroom to success supports the “work hard and you can accomplish anything” mentality of our generations, it also addresses the fact that Mike isn’t ultimately meeting his initial goal. He acknowledges his failure and grows past that. No other examples come to mind of children movies in which a character or characters fail and are okay with it, at least not in the end. This is what the critics missed. Pixar has chosen to tell a story about children (monsters) who grew up and realized that they cannot achieve their dreams, that their dreams are out of reach and totally unattainable. This bold lesson is actually a fantastic one for kids who watch this film.

For some, it’s been decades of being taught that it is okay to fail, but that with hard work you can still achieve those dreams. For many that’s true, but for some it’s just not feasible. MU has managed to tell a story that supports that second statement. Failing isn’t bad and realizing that some dreams really are out of reach is also okay. The real lesson is to be comfortable with who you are, what you’re truly capable of and utilizing your strengths to better yourself and your community. That’s what Mike does, he becomes the coach and teacher. His knowledge of scaring helps Sullivan to eventual massive success. He helps the rest of Oozma Kappa reach their dreams.

It’s not a story about settling, it’s a story about failing, learning from it and growing from the experience to make yourself and others better. It’s a life lesson that we should share with this current and future generations. Yes you can reach your dreams with hard work, but if you can’t, that’s okay too.

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  1. Good post. I actually wrote about the exact same thing in my own Monsters University essay: http://altairandvega.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/monsters-university/

  2. Ha! That’s awesome! Thanks for sharing the link. I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw what was really going on and was moved by it. 🙂

  3. Ha! That’s awesome! Thanks for sharing the link. I’m glad I’m not the
    only one who saw what was really going on and was moved by it.

  4. Pixar movies are great. They all have great lessons to teach. I’ve actually noted down a few things from Monsters University one can apply to your business / professional life. Here’s a link to the blog post: http://luscangroup.com/blog__3_important_lessons_from_pixars_monsters_university_that_can_improve_your_business,10.html

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