Monsters University: Bonus Question – Are These Monsters Dangerous?

If you read my review of Monsters University, you know that I liked it.

But I hope that wasn’t enough for you. I hope you don’t stop there. I didn’t.

I went on to read reviews by Matt Zoller Seitz and Steven Greydanus. One increased my appreciation of the movie, and the other helped me see its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.

And then another review aggravated this lifelong lover of monsters.

Matt Zoller Seitz, who has stepped into Roger Ebert’s enormous shoes at RogerEbert.com, strikes back at cynics with a powerful appreciation of the movie:

Sully and Mike are such richly-drawn individuals, so fully imagined in terms of psychology, body language and vocal performance, that they feel more “real” than the live-action heroes in almost any current summer blockbuster you can name. This is a specific Pixar talent, and for all the goodwill that the company has generated over the years, they still don’t get enough credit for it.

“Monsters University” is the sort of film that’s easy to undervalue. It’s not deep, nor is it trying to be, but its goals are numerous and varied, and it achieves every of them with grace. …

The script is filled with lines that are quotable not just because they’re funny (though many are) but because they’re wise…. My former colleague Manohla Dargis was right to object to Pixar’s decision to tell yet another guy-centric story after releasing the quietly revolutionary “Brave” — but considering the warmth and intelligence radiating from every frame of this film, it’s far from a dealbreaker. There’s a decency and lightness of spirit to “Monsters University” which, in a time of tediously “dark” and “gritty” entertainment, is as bracing as a cannonball-dive into a pool on a hot summer’s day.

And then Steven Greydnaus writes,

There are clever touches throughout and at least one solid, subversive idea that is vintage Pixar.

That one idea flies in the face of countless Hollywood films, both animated and otherwise. Hollywood is always telling us that if you want anything badly enough, you can achieve it; just believe in yourself, and you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.

In a way, Pixar has been pouring cold water on this idea ever since Buzz Lightyear came crashing to Earth despite his deep need to believe that he could fly. Perhaps everyone is special, and anyone can cook — but real superpowers, or the makings of a great chef, are a gift that not everyone has. On this theme, Pixar remains true to its school.

Well, kind of. Monsters University acknowledges that not every monster is cut out for scaring — but this hard truth isn’t consistently applied to a number of cuddly, obviously unscary monsters who wind up making the grade against all odds.

But another review prompted me to add a “Bonus Question” to my own Monsters University Test Questions.

I meant to include the Bonus Question in my review, but then I decided that the Bonus Question was rather tangential, leading us into questions that are much bigger than the central subjects of Pixar’s whimsical movie.

So I’m giving this question its own post.

BONUS QUESTION:

Packed with monsters of all sizes and shapes, Monsters University is 

A. too scary for children.

B. dangerous for children, because monsters should be portrayed as evil, not endearing.

C. good, because it encourages kids to start saving now for paying off their student loans.

D. meaningful, because it encourages young people to pursue their dreams, and to do so with humility, with hard work, with integrity, and with an uncompromising commitment to honesty.

ANSWER: D.

EXPLAIN:

I’m compelled to write about this in response to another reviewer, who argued something very close to “B.”

Timothy Wainwright at Christianity Today writes:

The Monsters films, while funny and cute, aren’t fairy tales. There is no hero, and no villain, in Monsters University. In fact, the villains of fairy tales become the heroes of this film. Thus it teaches kids not that the night is dark and full of terrors, but that it is dark and full of adorable fuzzy things.

By making monsters adorable, Monsters University destroys the meaning of the word monster. And the wisdom of tradition and faith, which remind us that bad things are very real, tells us that children must know the meaning of that word.

For the adults who wrote the film and the parents who will go to see it—grown-ups who have enough perspective to recognize the value of internal struggles and tragic flaws—the “monsters” theme is a clever device. But the question remains: is it the best thing for the moral formation of a child?

When you go see Monsters University, you might want to leave the kids at home.

While I appreciate Wainwright’s desire to look out for the children, I can’t agree with his conclusions.

Here are four reasons why.

1.

First of all… regarding Wainwright’s claim that “There is no hero, and no villain, in Monsters University. In fact, the villains of fairy tales become the heroes of this film.”

That’s a contradiction. If there are no heroes or villains, how can the ‘villains of fairy tales’ become ‘the heroes of this film’?

Whatever the case, who cares? Does a children’s story need a villain? Does it need a hero?

I didn’t see “heroes and villains” in this film. I saw monsters who represent the kinds of people students may encounter in college. Some are bullies, some are cowards, some are brainiacs, some are prodigies, some are leaders, some are followers. And that’s fine.

Villains can be an important part of storytelling, but some of the most meaningful stories of my childhood had no villains at all. In fact, some of the most important were stories that took my expectation of a villain and turned that upside, making me learn not to see the world as divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.”

And my commitment to following Jesus Christ compels me to realize that all human beings are “bad guys” to one degree or another, and when we start dividing ourselves into “the good guys” (us) and “the bad guys” (others), we are on the road to becoming monsters ourselves.

2.

Second, sure — Monsters University does not teach children that the night is dark and full of terrors.

What kind of movie teaches children to be afraid of the dark?

A meaningful children’s story will teach them that, yes, there are some scary and dangerous monsters out there, and we should live with discernment and wisdom. But no, we shouldn’t live in fear.

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Sometimes, whether we stumble into the shadows or venture there with good intentions, we find good things there.

And, as Jesus taught, and as The Lord of the Rings echoed him, we should approach even the most monstrous among us with compassion, or else… again… we become monstrous ourselves.

3.

Furthermore — stories that teach children to recognize bad monsters by making snap judgments based on appearance and personality are preparing kids for a lifetime of hasty judgments based on first impressions.

Even in the Scriptures, we find symbols of the satanic and the dangerous turned upside down to represent the good and the redemptive. Consider the lion. The devil is a lion, right? He’s out there prowling… seeking whom he may devoir. But the lion is also a sign of God himself, and specifically, a sign of Jesus. The lion of Judah.

Were the prophets and poets of scripture irresponsible to suggest that a lion is anything more than a dangerous, man-eating predator? I don’t think so.

And who, in the scriptures, seems more monstrous than Saul, the mass-murderer of Christians? Still, we revere the Apostle Paul because God used even a monster like him, redeeming him and transforming him. Paul would always confess that he was the chiefest among sinners, but this was an occasion for God to show that the world is not divided into black-and-white camps.

4.

It is true that, in mythology, monsters are, essentially, representative of disorder, of brokenness, and, sometimes, of evil. The concept of monsters is important in child development for helping children give shape to their fears, learn to have courage when facing them, learn to overcome them, and most importantly, learn to avoid becoming one.

But it is also important to recognize that monsters are useful for other purposes as well. Kids tend to love monsters and even become attached to some of them because they know, on some level, that we are all a little monstrous, and we need to be honest about it and show come compassion and patience toward one another.

That’s why kids love Grover and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and the Great Gonzo and Animal on The Muppet Show. That’s why children who are lucky enough to discover Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away fall in love with some of the monsters there.

Moreover, some of the wisest stories are about learning that characters who seem monstrous at first glance might be more than meets the eye. Frankenstein, for example. .

Some even wiser stories encourage us to consider the possibility that a monster might not be doomed to behaving like one, but might even been transformed. Consider various renditions of “Beauty and the Beast,” in which the monster is shown grace and love, and is transformed. Consider “The Selfish Giant.” Consider “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” in which the mysterious grace of Christmas redeems an ugly devil… even though the transformation is internal, not external.

Finally…

I’ll leave you with this exchange, which took place in my Facebook correspondence last week:

QUESTION:
I finally watched Beauty and the Beast from 1946, and while I was absolutely enchanted by most of it, [SPOILER ALERT] the ending just hasn’t been able to connect with me.

Frankly, I was more than a little disappointed, and it seemed like Belle’s character was as well.. yet the film still went with a Happily Ever After vibe despite the disappointment.

Am I missing something? Was I expecting something that I shouldn’t have been, thus leading to crushed expectations?

MY REPLY:
I think that the ending of “Beauty and the Beast” is almost always disappointing… whether it’s Jean Cocteau or Disney or something more recent like “Warm Bodies.”

I think it’s because we relate to, sympathize with, and care about the Beast. We love him: his rough textures, his pathetic ego, his potential to do damage, the way he is enchanted by beauty. When the beast is redeemed, there is some measure of relief, but at the same time, no storyteller, no story can persuasively portray a fully redeemed character in a way that we can understand.

When this movie first played in 1946, it is said (this story may not actually be true, but it “rings true”) that one of the special guests in the audience — it may have been Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo — cried out in the closing scene, “What have you done with my Beast?” On some level, we broken human beings are so well-acquainted with being monsters that the vision of a “restored human being” just doesn’t connect with us. How do you show an internal redemption? Unless you go about showing us a remarkable change in behavior, you can’t. And the movie doesn’t even try.

What does this have to do with Monsters University?

Pixar’s Monsters world is, like the world of The Muppets, Sesame Street, the films of Hayao Miyzaki, and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a world in which characters take on all kinds of appearances that often tell us things about their personalities, their challenges, and their true nature. Some of them turn out to be truly “monstrous” in character as well as appearance. And yet, we connect with them because, in their myriad variations, they remind us of how all of us are weird and strange and funny and surprising and broken.

And it feels right when some of them end up proving themselves to be just as disordered as they appear to be.

It also feels right when some of them prove to be better than that, or worth loving even if they’re disordered, broken, dangerous, and yes… scary.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Joshua Marchant

    The ‘Christian Today’ reviewer has some weird ideas on things.

    He says there weren’t clearly defined good and evil, heroes and villains.
    I’d say that does the movie credit. Good and evil is a pretty two-dimensional way to look at the world. Not to mention it can make for a pretty boring film.
    Monsters University didn’t need a villain, seeing how it’s a college movie. College doesn’t have villains, it has different kinds of people. There are bullies and cruel teachers but they still have motivations and reasons for being that way and are still a shade more interesting than a vanilla villain who does bad just because he wants to do bad.

    Not to mention these little chestnuts:
    Kids need to grow up fearing things and being afraid of the dark? Really?
    If you go to see MU, leave the kids at home. Wha??

  • Tim Wainwright

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my review! I’ve been thinking about it all week. I hope most of our disagreements can be resolved.

    The important questions here are: what is the relationship between heroes and good, villains and evil—symbol and ethic? Is there one? And furthermore, are there meaningful differences between human villains and monsters?

    I never say in my review that the importance of the more traditional sort of story is that it teaches that “human heroes are good and villains are evil.” I long for no stories that deny original sin. Good and evil are absolute, and the best men fall short of good and the worst men are still tame in comparison to pure evil.

    These stories and characters are important because they establish universes where good and evil really exist. Furthermore, their stories, told well, encourage us (imperfect as we are) to do good and avoid evil. I happen to think these are both great functions, so I find Point One’s question “Who cares?” to be a little baffling. There should be no conflict between teaching the doctrine of sinful man, and recognizing the importance of teaching great examples of courage, charity, love, sacrifice, duty, and honor. The storming of the beaches of Normandy is still worth talking about in moral language, even though the charge was made by fallen creatures.

    And this is without even getting to the heroes that point to Christ—the Aslans and Supermen that make up the myths that “became fact” in the incarnation.

    In any case, I would argue that there’s an important distinction between human villains and monsters (which I admittedly failed to make in my review). As antagonists, monsters play by a different set of rules. By and large, monsters are symbols of the essence of evil—the absolute. They represent sin, death, and the Devil. Granted they take various forms, and the unique contexts of each are crucial in exploring different sins and the unique demons of different genders, cultures, nations, and ages. But they have always, explicitly or implicitly, taught about evil and the retribution that awaits breakers of the Law—a spiritual fact that makes the mercy of Christ and the depth of His sacrifice all the greater.

    So the question becomes, just how important is it that we have commonly agreed upon symbols for evil? It seems important to me, like the importance of a shared language and shared notions of real evil in the first place. And Monsters
    in particular dilutes the strength of the symbol (however redemptive the
    film may be as a whole—but we’ll come back to that later) by positing our “traditional symbols of evil” as cute and nice.

    This wouldn’t be such a big deal to me if the idea of “good and evil” wasn’t in such widespread retreat today in our culture. I think this traditional function so important because our age suffers from the lack of a moral vocabulary, a denial of the very concept of sin. I tend to agree with Alasdair MacIntyre: we come after virtue. If you agree with that, is it that outlandish to see the rise of the Monsters device as a symptom of our cynical, tear-down-everything culture?

    The trend of “ lets doubt all inherited concepts and symbols of authority and ought” is for children’s film what The Green Book was for children’s textbooks, which gave the reader an “assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one
    side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.
    The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy,
    and he cannot know what is being done to him” (Lewis, The Abolition of Man).

    Having wolves only wear sheep’s clothing makes our culture ethically wishy-washy. And having ethical clarity is not important because it lets us judge others and be self-righteous, it is important because it brings us to repentance and to let Christ live through us. While you are right on in saying that sometimes the villain is who we least expect it to be, I think one ventures into a more subversive realm when the premise of a text is “let’s suppose monsters are good.”

    To sum up this point, I made a quiz question of my own.

    Q: Read the passage below.

    “My mother wasn’t very nice to me,” sniffed Grishnakh. “And all the other Orcs used to pick on me, because my teeth were slightly cleaner and I didn’t smell as bad as they did.”

    Merry strained against his manacles in his desire to give the Orc a consoling, empathizing pat on the back.

    “And the thing is, I’m hungry! It’s not personal, you understand—it’s just that Saruman’s army doesn’t pay anywhere close to a living wage,” said Grishnakh, the tears now flowing down his face.

    Pippin was overcome by remorse, inwardly cursing himself for how
    narrow-minded and judgmental he had always been towards Orcs, Sauron, Wargs, and the like.

    “Don’t worry about it, old sport,” said Merry as the Orc picked him up and carried him towards the cookpot. “Surely if we could put ourselves in your shoes for a moment, we would totally understand.”

    Merry smiled as Grishnakh lowered him into the bubbling cauldron, content in his new enlightened outlook. “If only,” he thought as the boiling water enveloped him, “I could have had one last taste of good old Southfarthing pipeweed before I went.”

    If this passage were inserted into The Two Towers, the book would be:

    A. Better
    B. Worse

    Answer: B.

    Now let me speak to a few more issues that you brought up.

    Point Two is our easiest disagreement to resolve, I think. I don’t mourn the loss of the traditional fairy story because it teaches children to live in fear—that would be bad, definitely. Rather I think that to have what Tolkien calls the “sudden joyous turn” that points to the gospel, you need to have some credibly scary stuff. Before the light must come the darkest moment. As you say, a “meaningful children’s story will teach them that yes, there are some scary and dangerous monsters out there, and we should live with discernment and wisdom.” I agree with that.

    In Point Three, you say that stories that “teach kids to recognize bad monsters by making snap judgments based on appearance and personality” just teach judgment. I agree, monsters are not evil because of the way they look. Although their appearance, traditionally, does highlight their danger—tentacles that seek to grasp, horns to pierce, hooves to trample, gaping maws that seek to devour. So in Monsters, the aesthetic cute-washing goes hand in hand with their role reversal/change in ethical, archetypal status. But the one definitely follows the other, to be sure.

    Next in Point Three, you bring up symbol reversal in
    Scripture in the form of the “lion” as a metaphor for both God and the Devil.
    In both of those cases, though, the lion is symbolizing danger. It is true that both God and the Devil are dangerous—just in different ways. ‘Monsters’ is different, because it takes a symbol that means “bad” and switches it to “good.”

    And this is relevant to the snap judgments point–by that logic, won’t using the lamb as a symbol for Christ just teach kids to recognize good by making snap judgments based on appearance?

    You go on to mention that Saul was a monster because he was chief among sinners. I disagree—this made him “monstrous” as you say, but he was a man, not a monster. This is an example of the difference between human villain and monster. If Saul had been a dragon that stopped eating people and started a church plant in Corinth, then you would have a valid ‘Monsters’ analogy.

    Point Four gave my brain a work out. No one wants to find out that his words have trapped him into doubting the Cookie Monster. I’m not too familiar with either The Muppets or Sesame Street—but I’m prepared to grant that their redemptive qualities outweigh the cons of their misuse of monster symbology. (Although it’s interesting to note that Count Von Count used to be scarier, until overprotective parents wrote in demanding he change–and his obsession with counting shoves him into the role of, while not quite villain, “antagonist” in several sketches.)

    While I’m prepared to grant that point, I would also argue that the Cookie Monster is different because he loves cookies, which are intrinsically holy, and is only a “monster” in the sense that he has a ravenous appetite–he’s never supposed to, as far as I know, represent a parallel to the monster of artistic history in the way that the ‘Monsters’ monsters are.

    And I’ve only seen the Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast–but in that tale, the Beast is not the true villain, nor is he a monster–he is an arrogant man who has been cursed. Gaston, on the other hand, is one of the most memorable villains in the Disney canon.

    The point I want to make is that scary monsters have a valuable function in storytelling, a function that helps teach children about good and evil. And I want to argue that the trend in popular ethics that denies good and evil is reflected in popular art by the increasing tendency of declawing traditional monsters and villains. Does this mean that there’s nothing to get out of the Monsters films? No. But at the very least, parents need to be made aware of the philosophical stakes, as it were, so they can think of the consequences. Live with discernment, as you say.

    As an afterthought, even if you assume for the sake of argument that undermining the strength of this symbol is no big deal, Monsters still adds little in terms of plot and moral to make up for the symbol subversion. I agree with Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic who points out that the central question of Monsters, “’Will two monsters named Mike and Sulley who just met learn to get along so that they stay enrolled in their college major of choice?’ packs less of an emotional wallop” than Pixar greats like Finding Nemo and Up.

    The fixation on the “follow your dreams” attitude that children’s films put out into the cultural space would need its own essay, but I’ll just say that I think it’s done my generation a disservice.

    Anyways, hope that clarifies things a bit. And sorry for the length—I didn’t have time to write anything shorter.

  • Rebecca Wimer

    I love this .. So much. :)
    Wonder what u think of this Jeffrey?
    http://www.mbird.com/2013/06/pixar-and-the-beauty-of-ugly-emotions/

  • Megan Willome

    I’m so glad you brought up Sesame Street and the Muppets. Of course, I knew you would, but it was immensely gratifying.

    My kids are “too old” for Monsters University, but I’m not. I think I know what I’m doing this weekend.

    Take care.

  • http://compartmentliving.wordpress.com/ Katie Hurd

    Great post. I especially agree with your idea that, from a Christian perspective, only Christ is good, and all of humanity is flawed in some way or another. The desire for a hero vs. villain showdown and drawing such a thick line in the sand of “good guys” and “bad guys” does not equip our children with the compassion or humility that we are called to have by Christ.

  • http://www.gabbingwithgrace.com/ Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    thanks, love this review… of sorts! Me & my boys saw it last weekend and loved it!

  • Alice

    That quote from CT is an odd reaction because most parents don’t want movies to scare their children. I agree that children shouldn’t be completely sheltered from evil in the world, but in an ideal situation, they should be exposed to the harsh side of reality on a developmentally-appropriate level. And regardless, there’s certainly no reason for every story to be dark and scary.

  • Jacob Andrew Wilson

    Love this. Just wanted to add that in addition to all of the points you made, isn’t one of the main themes of Monsters Inc. telling us that the other, the one that we think is scary and dangerous can often be just like us? And doesn’t it do this by flipping the story around and showing us a world of monsters that are terrified of humans? Sure monsters can serve their scary purposes, but this series seems to be created to show us, well, the humanity in those we consider to be monsters.

    • Rebecca Wimer

      Re the CT comments, I remember there were similar comments about SHREK turning ogres into the good guys.


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