Betcha didn’t know that the origin of “monster” was from the Latin word “monere,” which not only means “to warn” but it also means “to instruct or teach”. So Monsters University (if we can here on out forgive and forget the missing apostrophe punctuation error in the title) really means – a teaching university.
But that is not what I came here to talk to you about. Monsters, Inc., which came out in 2001, 12 years before Monsters University, was a very cute movie. My oldest was 13 and my youngest 3 and they all loved it. Bryan and I did too. Unique quirky movie about gentle giant monsters who scared kids to make them scream, to power their world the way electricity powers ours. The story focuses on two inseparable best friends: Sulley, voiced by John Goodman and Mike by Billy Crystal. Sulley is a big blue furry Big Foot kind of guy and Mike is a round one-eyed green basketball shaped monster who is Sulley’s coach. As a team no one can beat them in scream units. Their world believes children are toxic so they NEVER EVER touch a child or anything they own. They are transported through warp-portal-like doors which can take them instantly anywhere in the world. One day Sulley walks into the bedroom of a very small child who is just not afraid of him but follows him back into HIS world. They discover she is not toxic, there is a lot of running about, misunderstandings and learning about how friendships can traverse enormous differences. Blah blah blah. Cute.
But this is not what I have come here to talk to you about. The lesson that I have come to tell about was in the sequel — er, prequel, Monsters University. THAT story is about how Sulley and Mike meet. Throwback, in Sulley and Mike’s time, some 12 years before we meet them in Monsters, Inc., and we have Monsters University. This, in a kind of backwards time warp, is the length of time it took the filmmakers to getting around to make Monsters University. In Monsters University, released in 2013, we find that Sulley is the academics-avoiding BMOC at Monsters U and Mike is the new guy and misfit. Mike is the smart one who will never be wanted for a team but knows every trick written in every textbook about scaring. They hate each other on sight for obvious reasons but they are thrown together by a series of events to struggle in a common challenge and learn to benefit from each others’ strengths – Sulley becomes the brawn to Mike’s brains. This is not much of a spoiler as we know they are friends in the first movie, Monsters, Inc. Blah, blah, blah. Cute – we’ve seen it before.
But this is not what I have come here to talk about. The brilliant homeschooling moment comes in the last 10 minutes of Monsters University. Now, I promised I would not give away any spoilers without warning. Normally I don’t like to give spoilers at all but occasionally it is necessary. This is one of those times. OK, the following includes spoilers – kind of a “duh” since I AM going to discuss the end of the movie.
3–2–1– you have been warned. At the end of Monsters University , the pair overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles by doing what countless other movie protagonist pairs or groups have done in many many other movies. They overcome the odds the same way Captain Kirk conquered the Kobyashi Maru — they cheat. They break the rules. Now, there ARE grounds and justifications for these actions but nonetheless the rules are broken. In most cases, including in my beloved Star Trek scenario, rule breakage is usually not only forgiven but rewarded. Punishment is usually – to use a Catholicism – indulged, in that given the circumstances the intrepid heroes are cut about a mile’s worth of swathe and they get everything they want and are seen in the end as the champions to be emulated. To me this has always been a mixed message. Yes, whatever they did was brave and for a good cause but —– they did something wrong. Often terribly wrong. And kids are supposed to imitate this??
Well, guess what? In the end of Monsters Univerity our heroes, Sulley and Mike, who we have come to love and laugh with and cheer for over two movies, who we KNOW become champions in Monsters, Inc., are NOT forgiven but ——- are expelled! They are thrown out!! Their one track to success, financial reward, employment in their dream jobs at Monsters, Inc. seems thwarted – forever! But how is that possible? Do they plan a rethink of the first movie? Furthermore this breaks the mold! The campus BMOC and the one who would have otherwise been valedictorian are —-kicked out! I was astonished that reality would be appropriately crashed into this little film.
But then the pair, instead of giving up their dream as a hopeless cause, make a very realistic decision. They apply for work at Monsters, Inc. —- as mail room clerks. The rest of the movie is without dialogue but shows the duo, in a series of news clipping and photos taped to the inside of their workroom locker, making the absolutely best out of the bed they have made themselves. They are promoted again and again, given more and more responsibility. Until one day they apply for and are accepted as scarers. The rest is …well, history from the first familiar movie.
OK – what to make of this? Two important lessons, I think. The first is that actions have consequences. One does not often see that in movies. From people who sleep around without getting pregnant or STDs, to car crashes without passengers going into shock, to celebrity police breaking every rule and never getting more than a token slap on the wrist, to intrepid (often teen) heroes being given carte blanche for a “good cause”, the heroes are never really chastened.
Here, Sulley and Mike ARE punished. If you decide to break the rules, violate the law, even for a good cause, you must accept the consequences of your actions – even if, in the scheme of the bigger picture, those rules seem unfair. Sulley and Mike expect and accept the responsibility of their punishment with dignity and grace. They are neither angry nor bitter but understand it is the consequence of what they have done, no matter the exigent circumstances. There is a nobility and maturity written into these characters which you just do not often see.
This is a valuable lesson by itself. But THEN they demonstrate yet ANOTHER extremely important life lesson – that if you do not get what you want through conventional channels, perhaps you just need to take another route and WORK YOUR BUNS OFF TO GET IT!
I think the messages from the end of this movie were surprising and wonderfully applicable to the real challenges all of us eventually face. Monsters, Inc. was a nice kid film. That kid audience grew up in the 12 years between Monsters, Inc. and its prequel and, interestingly, the growth of maturity of the lesson in this sequel/prequel is tandem to the growth of its first audience. The kids who went to bed with stuffed animal versions of Sulley and Mike from Monsters, Inc. would be the teenagers and young adults observing their childhood friends accepting responsibility for their actions and making responsible decisions in Monsters University. That is truly a large life education. So — Monsters University really IS a monstrous lesson.