As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
Monsters University is Pixar returning to form, showing what can be done with a thoughtful sequel that invests in the characters and the world-building done in the first iteration. The film is not groundbreaking like the first; no, the ship has already sailed. But it did deeped an appreciation of Mike and Sulley, who stole our hearts in the first film because they were engines of change. They opened themselves to parental relationships toward Boo, the precious little tyke who found her way into Monstropolis, who found the monsters adorable instead of terrifying. Once they changed, they were willing to take on Hell’s flames with a water pistol to save that little girl and return her home safely, and by the time they were done, they’d completely revolutionized the company’s approach to power generation (laughter, not screams). This college-based prequel shows us that changing and growing is a lifelong process.
The film is an interesting riff on the gap between natural talent and hard work and dedication. When it comes to scaring, Sulley and Mike represent each of these different approaches. Sulley is the son of a famous Scarer, and he has all the talent and tools to be as great as his father. He also comes in with a smugness that follows many for whom life has always come easily. Mike, on the other hand, is shown as a tiny tot, literally forgotten about in grade school because of his diminutive size. If grown Mike is, as Manohla Dargis called him in the New York Times, a “spit-shined Granny Smith apple,” then his grade-school form is that of a green grape with an eyeball. He’s tiny and sweet, and though none of the monster kiddies seem that scary, it’s clear that Mike is viewed as something less than the others. But he’s driven. He works hard, studies hard, and gets into Monsters University on merit alone.
He runs into Sulley, and one might think that Mike would be in awe of him, because of who his father is. But Mike doesn’t really have time to be impressed by Sulley because he’s busy working hard to make sure he doesn’t flunk out come the end-of-year exam. Sulley quietly resents Mike’s rise through his hard work and determination; Sulley doesn’t do those things and just coasts on his family name and natural talent.
By the end of the film, when it matters most, Mike’s book smarts come in handy, but they don’t completely make up for the lack of fearsomeness. Sulley is still naturally scary, but when he listens to Mike and applies some of his know-how, it’s revealed that he can be truly terrifying.
What I like most about the film is a short sequence shown through annotated Polaroids and random newspaper clippings taped to the walls inside Mike’s locker. They were both expelled, and unlike so many fairy tales, they weren’t magically saved from their actions. The consequences were real. Then Mike’s mindset, which had already infected Sulley when they were training for the Scare Games, became their default setting.
They started out in the mailroom, and they started out there together. The inside of Mike’s locker showed a collection of triumphs, evidence of numerous jobs done well, and they were promoted up through the ranks together. And they don’t just jump straight from the mailroom the Scare Floor. No, they must scratch and claw their way to the top. It takes time and lots of hard work and is driven by Mike’s infectious can-do attitude.
There’s something so wholesome and heartwarming about the moment when Mike steps onto the Scare Floor for his very first day, and the film has come full-circle from the first time he’d crossed the safety line on the floor. When he’d done so as a young student, it was against his teacher’s and tour guide’s warnings. He’d sneaked closer to the action because he was fed up with being too small to see it. He got in trouble. On the joyous day when he took his rightful place as part of the team, it had been earned, and he belonged. There is never a story that, if it invested you properly in the main character’s desires, is dissatisfying to watch the character get what he or she has always dreamed of.
I think about the Sulleys and the Mikes of the world a lot. It was easy to do when I played sports; you were easily measured by your teammates and by your competition. You had a sense for a certain kind of natural pecking order. You knew your level of competence; some on your team were simply better at a given skill than you were, and others couldn’t match your level of play. That was the world as seen through Sulley’s eyes, but as the film shows, it can only take you so far.
The competition within your subset of similarly talented compatriots is when Mike’s worldview adds a lot of value. You and a rival might have the same 90 mph fastball; that is the limit of your natural talent. But hard work can make you a good pitcher, not simply one of many who possesses a lively arm. Sulley had a great fastball, but he didn’t know how to pitch. He found his counterpart in Mike, who’d mastered six different pitches and could seemingly read the batters’ minds but simply didn’t have a naturally strong arm.
The debate about natural talent versus hard work is a scarier thing now that I’m no longer playing competitive sports because the question never goes away. The question dogs many of us in our professional lives. For some, the question spins outward in the realm of the ethical. Atul Gawande’s book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, springs to mind. What does it mean to be merely a competent surgeon? If you are competent but others are great, what are the moral and ethical implications of conducting a surgery, with the knowledge that there are others out there who are better? Is it OK to continue to operate? Did the patient deserve “better”? And what does that even mean?
For those of us who would gladly leave the surgeries to the likes of Gawande and stick to, say, writing, well then we’d probably come to find out that Gawande does that better, too. But in all seriousness, writing’s stakes are very low when compared to those of a surgeon, but it is a craft that constantly invites self-doubt, imposter syndrome becomes your norm, and you begin to wonder if any amount of writing is going to make up for a clear lack of genius. We read geniuses, we celebrate geniuses, and we wonder, for a brief second, if they knew they were geniuses and if that knowledge seeped into every sight and sound and smell they ever took in.
We take solace in sayings like, “There is no great writing. Only great rewriting.” We hope the veteran writers are right when they say that you grow into a voice the more you use it. But we never know, with a capital K, that those aren’t mere platitudes dreamed up and written down by lesser writers struggling with a lack of genius in the same damn way.
The end of the movie appeals to me because they did it as a team, through the same hard work, and if there was any constant, it was the adoption of Mike’s worldview. Sure, Sulley’s genius for scaring eventually landed him on the Scare Floor, a famous Scarer in the mold of his father, exactly where he (and Mike) wanted to be from a young age. His natural talent was recognized because of his hard work, and it’s important for all of us to remember the order: work then recognition of talent.
For those of us putting words down on a page for a living, we’re able to do what we do because of Mike’s worldview. I don’t know what the geniuses saw or if they realized they were geniuses in the moment, but I can speak for the decidedly non-genius of us out here who still want to write despite lacking the genius gene: Writing is a craft, and we can get better at it. It feels good to know that much is true, and while our words may never compete for Pulitzers and Nobels, we can still get on the Scare Floor and do the same work as the geniuses. When you love something as much as most of us must, that’s more than enough.
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