You’re Not Good Enough, You’re Not Smart Enough, and Some People Don’t Like You: The Refreshing Realism of Monsters University

Review of Monsters University, Directed by Dan Scanlon When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. And a farmer. And an ice skater. But time passed, and I realized that I was far too sensitive (about animals, anyway) to endure the heartache of watching families say goodbye to beloved pets. Raising animals for slaughter was likewise out of the question. I lacked the dedication and, quite frankly, the physical grace to be a skater. Plus, it turns out that veterinarian/ice skater/farmer is a challenging career combination to juggle. One by one, my childhood dreams gave way to reality, and I learned to embrace both my abilities and my limitations and adjusted my plans accordingly.

The transition from optimistic, impractical dreams to honest self-knowledge and realistic goals is an invaluable part of the maturing process. It can be difficult at times, that’s certain, but this injection of seemingly harsh truth into the daydreams of childhood is both necessary and beneficial. I may encourage my child to ‘reach for the stars’ and ‘dream big’, spouting aphorisms like ‘anything’s possible’, but if I find myself the parent of a tone-deaf adult still steadfastly—and obliviously—pursuing dreams of winning American Idol, I may well have done my child a disservice by encouraging the pursuit of goals that lie outside his or her reach. In this way, the Simon Cowells of the world, the naysayers and the critics, are not mere jerks and haters—they are actually serving those they criticize by doing what no one else will: telling them the truth. Not that it’s a popular truth. We desperately want it not to be truth at all; we want it to be a filthy lie. We want the truth to be that anyone can do anything, that if you just set your mind on it and work hard enough, you can achieve your dream. But that’s not the real world. We have limitations. The world is full of little boys who wanted to play basketball like Michael Jordan. Many of them worked really, really hard at it. But to date, no one has pulled it off. If we tell them that anything is possible, that they can make their dream a reality, then how do they explain their failure? After all, failure is not always a function of ‘not working hard enough’. If insurmountable limitations exist, hard work, though morally beneficial, is just a hamster wheel to nowhere. Some dreams are beyond our power to achieve. That is life. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, ‘playing basketball like Michael Jordan’ isn’t the only worthwhile goal in the world. As children, we’re drawn to extreme goals—be the best, the brightest, the first. But these kinds of tasks fall to a very few individuals, and the majority of kids (even your kids), will never be the best at anything. And that is ok. There is no shame in merely being good, being bright, loving your friends and family, and working hard, even if you never win a gold medal for any of it.

For this reason, the excellent Monsters University is a welcome film indeed. Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) wants desperately to be a scarer—to frighten little children, thereby eliciting the screams that power Monstropolis. This is his dream. And he works hard at it, studying hard and acing all his high school exams, and even earning admission to the prestigious Monsters University. But despite all his hard work, his intelligence, and his mastery of scare theory, one simple fact remains: he is not scary. Now he faces the end-of-term exam that will determine whether he is allowed to continue in the Scare Program, or will be banished from the major and forced to study something dull like scream can engineering. Young James P. ‘Sulley’ Sullivan (John Goodman) stands in stark contrast to Mike—the son of a legendary scarer, he is possessed of a natural scaring talent. He doesn’t have to work hard to be scary, and so he doesn’t.  He blows off the theory, confident that his natural ability will carry him through. But it turns out that creepy Dean Hardscrabble (the brilliant Helen Mirren) doesn’t have much patience for slackers who ignore the nuance and acquired skill required for truly excellent scaring, and it is not long before both our beloved heroes find themselves flat on their prats, out of the Scare Program, and face to face with the destruction of a lifelong dream.

Fortunately for Mike and Sulley, the story doesn’t end there. Every year the campus Greek Council hosts the Scare Games, wherein teams from various fraternities and sororities compete to prove who is the scariest. Mike is determined to enter—and win—the games, thereby proving to Dean Hardscrabble that he really is scary. With a reluctant Sulley in tow, Mike recruits a ragtag team from the lamest frat on campus (Oozma Kappa or ‘OK’), and off they go. The games themselves are a lot of fun to watch, and Mike and Sulley learn the usual lessons about teamwork—get to know your teammates and make the most of their various (if unusual and unexpected) strengths, learn to sacrifice for the team, seek team success over individual glory, etc. The members of Oozma Kappa surprise everyone with their strong showing in the games, making it to the finals against the strapping and terrifying monsters of Roar Omega Roar, headed by the swaggering Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillian).

And now, I must warn you that spoilers await below.

For, you see, Sulley, desperate to see his team succeed, cheats. In the final match-up, each team member must face the scare simulator and prove his or her scaring ability. And as Sulley knows full well, hard-working Mike just isn’t scary. So Sulley rigs the finals to ensure Mike’s success. When Mike learns the truth, he is devastated, and immediately embarks on a dangerous quest to prove his mettle as a scarer. In the process, he is finally forced to admit that despite his fondest wishes and most passionate dreams, he is not scary, and he never will be. He lacks the ability to do what he has set his heart on doing. This is a tough pill to swallow, indeed. In the aftermath of their misadventures, Sulley and Mike are thrown out of not only the Scaring Program, but the whole University.

There is no second (well, third) chance for them there. But Mike seems to have finally made peace with his limitations—with himself—and he and Sulley, now fast friends, dive into the working world where, as we know, Sulley will go on to earn a place on the scaring floor and win the all-time scare record. Mike will never scare anyone, but his knowledge and insight will be crucial to Sulley’s success. Every time Sulley succeeds, Mike will be right there with him, and will know that he contributed to his friend’s accomplishments. (And, eventually, when laugh technology renders scare technology obsolete, Mike will get his chance to shine.) The underlying story here is so very real, so bittersweet and poignant.

We all have dreams, and, somewhere along the line, most of those dreams die. We come face to face with our own limitations and are forced to find a sense of self strong enough to exist apart from the lofty goals we once hoped to accomplish. Who are we if we are not the valedictorian, the captain of the football team, the homecoming queen, or the best salesman on the lot? If we don’t have an answer to that question, even our successes will be fraught with anxiety, lest we lose the accomplishment that defines our very being. Of course, as Christians, we have the benefit of knowing that our identity and self-worth come not from anything we do or make, but from the One who made us. He made us in His image, and that is what gives us worth and value. We reflect and imitate the ultimate Person of value, the One who matters, and so we matter. This is true for all people everywhere, and especially true of Christians, whose value is doubly rooted in the Divine—first, like all men and women, as created beings, as second (and even more astonishingly) as those bought and paid for by Christ’s atoning death in our place.

Nothing, no failure on our part and no success on the part of our competitor, can ever affect these ultimate identities. They are based on the actions of the ultimate Cause, and nothing can shake or disturb His work. Our foundations are firm. So when our dream houses are leveled by harsh reality, we don’t have to re-build from scratch. The Rock of our salvation cannot be moved. Our identity is unshakable and eternal. But the majority of the viewers who watch Monsters University will likely not count themselves among those who trust in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on Calvary thousands of years ago. Is there a lesson in Monsters University for them? Absolutely. And it is this: Use this movie as a springboard for honest, heartfelt conversations with your kids. Talk about their dreams, and encourage them to dream big. And then, talk about the ways that the ‘little people’ get to contribute to the big dreams of the world. Talk about the dream behind the dream.

Mike Wazowski loved scaring, and wanted desperately to do it himself. That never happened for him, but he got to be intimately involved in the world of scaring, working alongside the best scarers in the world. He got to serve his community by participating in the scream-production industry (and ultimately spearheading the life-changing transition to laugh production). He got to use his abilities—his knowledge of scare theory, of tactics, of strategy, of training—to make other scarers better. You may not make the cut to be an astronaut, but maybe you can be an engineer who works on improving the technology that enables astronauts to do their jobs. Maybe you can clean toilets at NASA. Maybe you can teach a new generation about the wonders of science, or write a novel that fascinates the astronauts of tomorrow. Maybe you can read astronomy books to your young son and relish his wide eyes and awed face as he catches your passion for the world beyond the stars.  If what you care about is the thing itself—the subject matter of your dream—and not your own starring role as the superstar in that dream, then hard work and creativity really can make that dream a reality. If you sacrifice ego for substance, and care more about the task to be accomplished than about who actually gets the glory for accomplishing it, if you are willing to take whatever role you are best suited to perform, then reality ceases to be a place where dreams are put to death, and is transformed into a place where dreams—selfless dreams—begin to come alive. _______________________________________________________________ Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.


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