Missed lessons of Monsters U

A prequel to the popular Monsters Inc., Pixar/Disney’s new Monsters University is a Revenge of the Nerds ripoff featuring young Mike and Scully learning to be “scarers.” Pixar’s team “missed the chance to say something more interesting,” writes Rick Hess.

The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that “everyone is special,” he dejectedly mumbles, “then no one is,” while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade “graduation” is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University . . .  it’s not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol’ MU.

The movie “seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless,” writes Hess. “At a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft.”

Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the “scaring” professor. With that kind of talent, you’d seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe’s wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they’ve never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I’d have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline — or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils.

I like the Monsters University web site. The admissions page calls MU “a place for self-discovery, curiosity, and scholarship,” but warns only a fraction of applicants are admitted.  In addition to scaring, MU offers “academically rigorous” programs in scream energy, door technology and business, as well as “holistic training for the mind, body, and spirit.”

The message from the dean stresses MU’s diversity, which does indeed seem to be a strength.