Monsters University: college will cost you

Despite Disney Pixar’s best efforts, campus jokes just aren’t funny any more, argues Martin McQuillan

July 11, 2013

Source: Rex Features

Freshman meat: Mike Wazowski represents the aspirant middle class crushed by the costs of university. Also, he’s a giant eyeball on legs

Monsters University
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Starring Billy Crystal and John Goodman
Released in the UK on 12 July

Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001) is a post-Enron tale of heroic whistleblowers and corporate greed.

The eponymous energy firm, Monsters, Incorporated, produces electricity for the city of Monstropolis thanks to specialist “scarers” who extract the screams of children. The top scare team of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) discover, in a city of blackouts, that the company is at risk of collapse, with its chief executive Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn) and rival scarer Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) plotting to mechanise scream extraction.

As feature-length animations go, it is near to perfection: beautifully imagined, with an exceptional script and perfectly pitched for a mixed-age audience. Twelve years later, Disney Pixar has chosen to revisit Mike and Sulley in a prequel, Monsters University, set on an Ivy League-style campus where the elite scare programme is reserved for the best students.

Few of the Monsters, Inc. screenwriters have survived as part of the production team for the new film. Sadly, Monsters University is not in the same league as its predecessor, with all its best jokes references to the first film. In fact, the best of all are on the fake MU website used to trail the movie. In the film there are few of the sight gags and allusions to monster movies that made the original such a joy for adults to watch, and given that the plot is based around the initial rivalry between Mike and Sulley, the comic double act of Crystal and Goodman is strangely muted.

However, the interest of Disney films for those over the age of 12 does not lie solely in animated pratfalls or catchy melodies. Rather, as flagships of Hollywood cinema and metonyms for US social values, they tell us how America thinks, or would like the world to think, about culture. So what does Monsters University have to tell us about higher education today?

In the opening sequence of the film, a young Mike is taken on a school trip to the scare floor at Monsters, Incorporated. He is different from the other kids: he is articulate yet “nerdy” and estranged from his classmates (this is how Hollywood imagines prospective undergraduates). He is inspired by his visit to the factory and, so that he might work there one day, dreams of enrolling at MU. It is a little like universities and science minister David Willetts’ plan to send Year 9 pupils on inspirational Dux Award trips to Russell Group campuses, only the creatures have two heads rather than two brains.

Social mobility is the key to the film’s narrative. We never learn how Mike and Sulley are paying for college but it is safe to surmise that the former has obtained his place on academic merit and is in receipt of federal loans or a scholarship for the disadvantaged. He is delighted by the idea of finally becoming a college student and wants to devote himself to his studies.

Monster's University

Sulley by contrast comes from a distinguished line of scarers and MU old boys. He takes his studies lightly but is immediately invited to join the elite fraternity house, Roar Omega Roar.

The meeting of Mike’s upward mobility and Sulley’s old social capital results in a clash of personalities. However, when Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) refuses to allow them to progress in the scare programme, they must learn to overcome their differences and work together to win the annual Scare Games in order to prove that they should be readmitted.

Mirren’s characterisation of the dean is the most compelling thing in the film. Imagined as part louse, part vampire, part dragon, she clearly suggests that the US finds the figure of the college dean scary. Dean Hardscrabble comes from a long line of malignant and parasitical university administrators on film, including Jordan Charney’s cost-cutting dean who sacks Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984), John Vernon’s archetypal humourless dean in John Landis’ Animal House (1978) and Anthony Hopkins’ scandal-ridden former dean in Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003). It is worth noting that happy academic narratives in Hollywood, such as those featuring (Dr) Indiana Jones, do not involve deans and administration.

Sulley and Mike enter the Scare Games by joining the geekiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa: one that includes a mature student, a philosophy major and a creative arts scholar. This is a rather telling portrait of what takes centre stage in American academic life and what is considered something of a marginal joke.

However, this being Hollywood, the geeks inherit the earth. When our protagonists are at their lowest point (as demanded by the usual story arc of a Disney script), Mike rounds on Sulley and tells him that he envies him because he has all the advantages of his family background. Mike has pulled himself up through hard work and book learning but can never compete with Sulley because he “just isn’t scary” and will have to reconcile himself to mediocrity.

Yet Sulley realises that he needs Mike’s brains to survive and that together they make a formidable team, thus ensuring the condition for the reproduction of the elite through the incorporation of the talented aspirant middle class. It reminds us that social mobility as a justification for higher education is an essentially conservative idea not out of place in a Disney film (even of the Pixar variety).

However, and without wishing to offer a plot spoiler, despite their brilliance the pair conclude the film without finishing their degrees. They decide to join Monsters, Incorporated by taking jobs in the mailroom and working their way up to the scare floor. The message that the film ends with is this: you do not need a university education to achieve your ambitions. In contrast to Mike and Sulley’s lifelong fraternity and bonhomie in the workplace, we might note that the scheming Randall, the villain of the original film, is revealed to be a graduate of MU who travels from shy freshman to all-round rotter.

There is, then, in this film something monstrous about higher education. Despite the mock-Gothic ivory towers and the social nightmare of negotiating the fraternity and sorority scene, the university is at heart a place where graduates are prepared for industry. Those of MU become employees of Monsters, Incorporated, where they scare to earn in order to pay off the student debt that was always leading them to this employment. However, as we know from the original film, this is a dying industry: higher education as training for business has no future – it is the transferable skill of critical thinking that is of most value. The college dropouts Mike and Sulley realise that laughter is a more powerful resource than terror and thus solve the energy crisis and expose corporate illegality.

If only there had been a few better jokes to laugh at in this film. Sadly, perhaps it does not work as well as it should because for most people in the US nowadays, higher education is no laughing matter. The price to be paid for an elite education is monstrous: on 1 July, the interest rate on federal loans for undergraduates doubled from 3.4 per cent to 6.8 per cent as the result of gridlock in Congress. This cartoon version of the university is something even Disney cannot sugar-coat.

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