In Pixar's tradition of meticulously rich detail, "Monsters University" delivers a realistic, if filtered, message about the perils and successes of college years.
Although you won't see any boozing undergrads or promiscuous monsters getting their proverbial freak on, the prequel to 2001's "Monsters, Inc." does not shy away from other stock college experiences, such as alienation and the pressures of studying-for-employment society.
At the start, a close-up on the early years of the diminutive hero, Mike Wazowski, reveals a budding know-it-all whose innate desire to succeed grows out of the consistency with which he is generally ignored. He is the archetypal Harry Potter, cast in green and stripped down to one overgrown eye.
After a school field trip to the center of the monster universe, Monsters, Inc., young Mike cannot turn off his dreams of becoming a Scarer, the monsters who gather the scream power that runs their world. The position equates to football players in terms of hero-worship but holds the economic impact of an elite investor.
Fast-forwarding to his first day of college, a fearsome Greyhound bus drops off a very green Mike to study as a scaring major. (He arrives with merely two bags and a hat, begging the question as to what the always-naked hero could have possibly packed into his suitcase.) His orientation proceeds along a comical checklist, and amidst painfully accurate depictions of exuberant RAs and dangerous Frisbee games, Mike enrolls as a scaring major.
Sully makes his own dramatic appearance late to his first class on the first day of school, a typical stud with natural talent and an addiction to underachieving. He pines only for fraternal acceptance and chalks education up to instinct and borrowed pencils. The two immediately earn each other's envy, and much of the story is devoted to teaching them to work together.
After the orientation bit concludes, the movie rides on a campus tradition known as the Scaring Games, which pits the fraternities and sororities against each other in an echo of UT's own Boxing Tournament.
The depth of characters dominates an otherwise formulaic plot, a standard blend of sports flick and coming of age tale set on the reminiscence of classic campus comedies like Animal House or Van Wilder. Anyone who sees the film in hopes of some creative revelation will likely leave disappointed; Pixar aims to awe, not with innovative plotlines, but with clarity, both in its reflection of the real world and depiction of the monstrous one.
The influence of video-game markets shows through in several scenes, particularly the first challenge of the Scaring Games, when the competitors race through a dark sewer while trying to avoid softly-glowing and harshly inflammatory pink balls. Right on cue to keep the hype alive into next weekend, Disney has already released a mobile app, priced at 99 cents, that offers two mini games (including one based on the aforementioned Toxicity Challenge) and promises more mini games on later updates.
Vivid in visual scope and clever in every creepy detail, the setting of the story forges more than just a precedent for interactive gaming; it also builds a connection to the current collegiate generation. For a UT student, many of the 80s-era collegiate monstrosities reflect the brutal humanity of life on Rocky Top.
Whether it's the sharply stratified Greek social ladder or the desperate coffee drinker guzzling on the way to class (wouldn't college be easier with eight blue tentacles instead of two pale hands?), most G-rated facets of campus fill out the story. Although it would have been especially educational to see Pixar's writers tackle some of the more mature problems of the American university, sex-negative culture and substance abuse probably does not spell box office success. (The decision to avoid commenting on the darkest side of coming of age has proven reasonably safe thus far, debuting with an $82 million weekend.)
Instead, director Dan Scanlon and his cowriters use poignant lines – like when a fraternity bro-nster bullies Mike by claiming that he hates charity – to poke fun at the shallowest areas of college society. Comedic quotes from fringe characters keep the irony light, but the barbed riffs on demon-eyed sorority girls and pompous lecturers stab at real-life stereotypes.
These fresh interpretations of stereotypes provide a deeper level of moral entertainment, bubbling up between obvious children's lessons, such as the dangers of cheating and the importance of studying.
Unlike our world, where the best fraternities care most about social status, a letterman-laden Roar Omega Roar only accepts the best students. And MU's version of campus entertainment revolves around scaring, the main economic force. Their world is focused on utility, as if the atmosphere of boxing weekend were transposed to a business entrepreneurship competition. Similarly, a key return to Monster's Inc. reveals to Mike and Sully that judging potential success on a monster's appearance alone does not predict actual success.
Watching monsters discriminate and claim that some are scarier than others is no less absurd than living in a reality that discriminates on race and sexual orientation, and yet the latter is the world we live in.
In this regard, even the scariest UT students have a lot to learn from "Monsters University."