Much like Monsters Inc., the real protagonist of Monsters University is Mike (Billy Crystal), a green monster who spends his life hovering around the margins. He approaches MU with his (one) eye on anything and everything to do with scaring; the film opens with Mike attending a school tour of the Monsters Inc. facility, and this experience fosters an ambition within the young cyclops. By the time he reaches college age, his heart is set on becoming the best scarer he can be. There are his classes within the scaring program, of course—memorizing positions, growls, and the seemingly immense variety of childhood phobias—but there are also a host of extracurricular opportunities. Only one catches Mike’s attention for more than a moment, though: the Scare Games, a team-based competitive gauntlet that aims to determine the most fearsome monsters on campus. So far, so straightforward.
It’s hard to talk about Monsters University concisely because it captures the feeling of university so well. For at least the first half of its running time, everything contributes to an overall feeling of sensory overload; the number of characters who get a line—even if it’s just a throwaway laugh—is staggering. There’s a moment in the first few minutes where Mike, feeling overcome, looks over the side of a bridge on campus, and sees another population of students going about their business underwater. The focus remains on Mike during this mind-bending first act because trying to capture an objective view of everything would be overwhelming. When you first arrive on campus, taking a step back and imagining what you’re missing is impossible. Every moment flies past you, and it’s up to you to grab them instinctively.
Things really take shape once Sulley (John Goodman) enters the picture. A turquoise alpha male with shaggy fur and an arrogant demeanor, Sulley is everything that Mike isn’t—born into greatness and blessed with natural talent, but also lazy and easily distracted. This natural opposition tightens the focus as they square up against each other as rivals, only to find themselves thrown into circumstances that demand cooperation. As these two characters receive more and more definition, the throwaway caricatures that surround them become less overwhelming, because they no longer present another avenue of opportunity. The evolving relationship between Mike and Sulley is an anchor.
There is something deliberate in the fact that Monsters University is a prequel, I think. At the end of Monsters Inc., Mike and Sulley discover that the laughter of children is a far more powerful source of energy than their screams. There is probably a sequel to be found that spins off from such a civilization-shattering discovery—the culture of scaring is found right at the root of Monstropolis itself—but the film was always really about the characters, not their environment. By creating a prequel, the creators are only underlining this.
Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) is a gravely charismatic authority figure, but her authority comes from her legacy of scaring children, a useless skill once the events of Monsters Inc. are over. None of this seems to matter, though, because her capacity for cruelty works from a character standpoint. Likewise, scaring really just seems like a means to the end of the next emotional beat. Mike has moments of insecurity about his ability to scare well, but the scaring isn’t the point—it’s the fact that he has to be knocked down so he can get back up. Likewise, the Scare Games don’t really matter, fun as they are to watch. The purpose they serve is to bring Mike and Sulley together—to make them realize the power in using the strength of each other to become stronger themselves.
For most of us, the lessons we learn from being around other people tend to reveal themselves long after the fact. Life is messy, and chaotic, and when you’re thrown into a new environment—school, university, the wide open world—you’re often too busy reacting to reflect. It’s only later that things start to make a sort of sense.
It’s telling that the two key moments of reflection at the conclusion of Monsters University take place away from college.
“I act scary, Mike – but most of the time, I’m terrified,” Sulley says by a moonlit lake at a human summer camp, and for the first time in the film, the wisecracking, arrogant monster is replaced by something altogether more vulnerable. It’s startling, learning that the most self-assured character in Monsters University is just making it up as he goes along, but it’s also a breath of fresh air—by admitting it so nakedly, Sulley gives himself an opportunity for growth. He takes a step back from the pretense and swagger of campus life, and starts to see things slide into place.
Later, after Mike and Sulley suffer permanent expulsion from MU, Mike boards a bus, his head hanging, not sure what his next move is going to be. Sulley confronts him at the last moment. There, he mirrors his previous confession. He gives Mike the confidence he needs, calling him fearless, and Mike breaks into a smile—for Mike, so much rides on the validation of the people around him, and in the closing moments he finally receives it. By reshaping Mike’s memories of MU for the better, Sulley gives him a better shot at whatever comes next.
Now that a couple of years have passed, I wonder what sort of person I might have become had I chosen a different path through university. The scene where dozens of societies are vying for Mike’s attention is painfully familiar to me. I ended up sticking with a couple of societies devoted to hollow student activism and edited a student fiction anthology, but as it happens I found my inspiration elsewhere. Had I been a little more gutsy, I might have gotten into improv. If I drank more, I could have tolerated the long-haired headbangers. If I hadn’t fallen in love with someone who had the audacity to live three thousand miles away, I might have been on some ludicrous gap year to Kenya.
I think, once you get to college, your opportunities for really screwing up are beginning to dry up. Even if you drop out, it’s never as damning a sentence as failing high school. These alternative, parallel-universe versions of me are interesting, certainly, but no more appealing than the life I ended up living. There is a version of me who is chained to the gates of an arms manufacturer and believes he is doing God’s work. There is, almost definitely, a parallel life where I’m backpacking around North Africa, intoxicated by a dozen new experiences every day. But instead, I spent my time at university solidifying a relationship, and then moved to the USA and got married once it was over. This version of me is just as happy as the rest.
I graduated university two years ago, and it can be hard to pull some coherent narrative out of it all. My formative years didn’t follow the simplicity of a Pixar movie. Watching Monsters University, though, is more about grasping a principle – that, more often than not, the way you approach your past is more flexible than you might think. There are always lessons, good and bad, buried in the chaos of your memories.
Sometimes, you just need someone else to cast them in a different light.