‘Monsters University’ and the Prequel Problem

Credit: Disney/Pixar

Warning: The following article contains major spoilers about the plot of Monsters University.

When we meet a young Mike Wazowski, revamped entirely from his wise-cracker turn in Monsters, Inc. to be the wide-eyed, go-getter hero of the new piece, his quest to be a great scarer is clear as day. After an elementary school field trip to Monsters, Inc., little Michael decides that it is his destiny to scare the bejeezus out of humankind like the best of ’em (the best of ’em represented by a tentacled John Krasinski). As the movie carries forth, unlikely hero Wazowski battles against society’s expectations to be a scaring victor at the esteemed titular academic institution, proving that just because he might not be traditionally “scary,” that doesn’t mean that he can’t bring something to the time honored scaring game.

It’s a touching story of self-acceptance and tolerance of those different from you, of the formation of lifelong friendships with former foes. It’s sweet and charming, perhaps even evocative of a tear or two.

But then, you recall the ending to Monsters, Inc., and it all kind of goes down the drain.

As a prequel to one of Pixar’s most beloved features, Monsters University already has the odds against it. Sequel territory is risky; prequel territory is like a freakin’ minefield. But it’s not only the quality of the 2001 film that Monsters University contends with — failing to measure up to its wit and cartoonish charm — nor the impressive world building. In fact, it’s the conclusion of Monsters, Inc. that undercuts the new release: an ending that proved that monsters shouldn’t be scary.

If you’ll recall, Mike and Sully’s tireless efforts to protect human toddler Boo resulted in the revelation that a child’s laughter is far more effective at fueling the Monstropolis energy supply than a child’s screams. As such, the industry is revolutionized: instead of scaring kids, monsters take to making them chuckle. In this new realm, Wazowski (formerly resigned to office work) is a champion. Not only that, but it makes the monsters seem a whole lot more amicable.

But with Monsters University, we’re adhered to the era when the monster race valued fearfulness. The ultimate victory of the film is that Mike and Sully manage to band together to become a great scaring team… an idea demonized (and understandably so!) by the original film. So are we supposed to be happy with this “triumph”? Or are we supposed to smirk knowingly with the notion in mind that the two of them will learn their lesson soon enough?

It’d be easier to judge Monsters University as a standalone film if it didn’t make pretty consistent callbacks to the original, banking on viewer familiarity to fuel a handful of gags. But keeping Monsters, Inc. in mind does a disservice to University. If you’re asked to remember the first film, then you’re asked to recognize the incomplete nature of the second’s ending.

And this isn’t an issue specific to the Pixar pair. In watching The Hobbit, an immense sense of dread embraces our attention to hero Bilbo Baggins, knowing how nature turns in The Lord of the Rings features. In OZ the Great and Powerful, we can’t help but recall the psychological downfall of the wizard… and the fact that no trace of a romantic relationship exists between him and Glenda in Dorothy’s chapter. And in another James Franco venture, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, how can we really root for Caesar when we know that his race turns into a malicious race of slave-owners? Well, I guess that’s kind of the point of that last one. But it certainly isn’t the case for Monsters University.

We’re supposed to feel happy that Mike and Sully “win” in the end. That they champion the art of scaring and become the most frightful entities in their versatile community. But when we think about just how sour they realize this line of work is in Inc., we have to sigh. A hollow victory indeed.

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.

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