Pixar movies, so far, have been overlooked by the When Can I Watch column. Not because we don’t care for them. Quite the opposite, actually. But it’s Pixar. The studio's movies are universally adored and, you’d assume, accessible for every member of your family.
However, as we got closer to the release of Monsters University, I heard from more than a few parents who shared some version of, “Yeah, we don’t really watch Monsters Inc. because my kid has enough trouble sleeping at night, so why do I want to terrify them with a story about creatures in their closet?”
Totally valid point. And like I said, one that I’ve heard too often not to acknowledge and try to address.
So this week, I wanted to get into a few of the things that might be questionable in Monsters University – especially if you have a sensitive child whose fears creep up in the evening – but also highlight all of the beautiful joys there are to be found in Dan Scanlon’s film (which I really do view as upper-echelon Pixar animation). Let’s dive in to Monsters University.
Green Lights: "I've been waiting for this my whole life!"
For those who’ve never seen Pete Docter’s original Monsters Inc., this particular Pixar franchise takes place in a world powered by fear, which is harnessed by the monsters who lurk in children’s closets. That sounds terrifying, but this is Pixar… not Eli Roth. Lead scare technicians Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) are a classic Abbott and Costello pairing who are sweet, adventurous and comically concerned with the emotional well-being of a cute girl named “Boo.” The end of Monsters Inc. might be the best conclusion to ANY Pixar movie. What’s a studio to do?
Scanlon and his team cook up a prequel, one that shows us how Mike and Sulley met in college. But Monsters U. goes back further than that, to the day adorable adolescent Mike took a field trip to Monsters Inc. and found his true calling.
The first lesson of Monsters University is that it’s never too soon to figure out what you might want to do in life… and you should never lose sight of that goal, no matter how many people tell you that you can’t accomplish something. Mike, in this new movie, convinces himself he wants to be a scarer. Not just a scarer -- the best scarer the world has ever seen. As you can see, though, he isn’t scary… and University deals with him coming to terms with that reality.
Sulley, on the other hand, is a “legacy” kid. He thinks he can coast through school because his parents are respected scarers, and the world is going to hand him everything on a silver platter. The monster will learn – and your kids should understand – that people don’t get anything handed to them in this life, and avoiding Mike’s work ethic will cost you a dream job or a valuable career.
In order to achieve their goals, Mike and Sulley mirror the plot of the 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds – which you shouldn’t show your kids. Not yet, anyway. They join forces with an awkward fraternity of castoffs, learn the value of teamwork and ultimately triumph because each individual monster brought something useful to the team.
Like most Pixar films, there are plenty of talking points and teachable moments in Monsters University. Aside from that, it’s just funny. Scanlon’s idea to send these characters back to school opens the door to several time-tested but uniquely amusing jokes that work in this Monster environment. And the final act of the film is terrific… but also a cause for concern. Let me explain.
Red Flags: "We scare because we care."
There is the built-in concern with the Monsters franchise that, yes, the sweet and cuddly creatures really do come out of a child’s closet and scare them, so that they can harness their screams. Monsters University opens with a scene of one creature (voiced by John Krasinski) terrifying a sleeping child. And then it ends with a longer, slightly more disturbing scene.
It’s hard to talk about it without dipping into spoilers. Stop reading here if you want to be protected, but maybe skip to the Appropriate Age section, where I’ll summarize.
Near the end of the film, Mike – his feelings hurt – escapes through a door. He’s desperate to prove that he’s scary enough to frighten a child. Only, he ends up at a summer camp for kids… and children, in the Monsters world, are believed to be toxic.
Sulley rides to Mike’s rescue, but in order to return to their home, they must generate enough screams to power a closet door. They have to scare adult police officers. And in these moments, Scanlon channels his inner Wes Craven, animating a few things that go bump in the night.
The sequence is fantastic. It incorporates more of the “things that go bump in the night” that has given two Monsters movies their spine. Mike scurries around the room’s shadows while Sulley drags his razor-sharp claws down a wood floor. This sequence alone has me hoping against hope that one day Pixar will unshackle its animators and let them try a full-blown horror movie.
But is it too much for your kids? Our five-year-old, Brendan, was fine with all of it… but he’s not a nervous kid. Far from it. And again, it’s Pixar. The people there are not in this game to terrify your young ones. The bulk of Monsters University is light and funny and accessible. Every kid is different, of course, and this once scene might get under their skin. Keep that in mind.
My boys, ages nine and five, adored Monsters University. They loved the creature designs, they dug the school humor, they still talk about the Scare Games competition, and they like it better than the original movie. I appreciate the lessons worked into the screenplay, and found a lot to explore in the animated backgrounds of the college campus.
In general, I don’t think you have too much to worry about when it comes to Monsters U., but if your child has specific concerns about creatures in his or her room, there’s just enough of that to possibly prompt you to wait until they can see it at home.
I hope you check it out once it opens in theaters. And as always, if you take your kids, let me know how it goes!
If you'd like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.