I recently saw the film Pitch Perfect after at least a dozen of the teens and young adults in my ministry raved about it. It's a movie about a college freshman trying to find her way, eventually finding a sense of belonging in unlikely group of nerds who strive against all odds to become the champions of a their school's most prestigious competition. They must overcome their differences and conquer their insecurities in order to achieve greatness.
Essentially, the plots of Pitch Perfect and Monsters University are the same. Both are about the struggles of emerging adults. Both are hilarious. The former is about a cappella singers. The latter is about animated monsters. So, pretty much identical.
From Buster Keaton's silent classic College, to the Oscar-nominated David Fincher masterpiece, The Social Network, the college movie is practically its own genre. Monsters University fits perfectly in its pantheon. MU tells the origin story of Mike and Sully, the best friends and top scarers in Monsters Inc. A young Mike follows his dream of becoming a professional scarer into the scaring program at Monsters University, an elite institute for the best scarers around. Mike knows all the right techniques and has put in countless hours of study, unlike his tall purple-and-blue competition, Sully, who lazily (but effectively) relies on his natural scariness to pass his tests. When Mike and Sully find themselves kicked out of the program, their only hope is to join the ranks of Oozma Kappa, the lowliest and dorkiest of the fraternities, in order to win the school's annual Scare Games and prove their scary worth.
Filled with plenty of new supporting characters and a straightforward plot, Monsters University could have been a by-the-books children's movie. But its care to take these silly monsters and make them actual characters, as well as its affective and surprising final act, changes the entire dynamic from formulaic to fresh. Mike and Sully's struggles to feel accepted, pursue their goals, and experiences of success and failure ring true to life, their animated monster-y nature notwithstanding. It felt appropriate to watch the film immediately after a graduate banquet for a group of high school grads, brimming with hopes and dreams and the frightening excitement of the unknown future. Plus, Monsters University was hilarious; I laughed out loud numerous times in the theatre, as did the audience around me.
Monsters University raises all sorts of questions for emerging adults. What happens when you chase a dream, and it simply isn't the reality? How do you determine your vocation? Who are your true friends, and how can you be a good friend to others? Can you be a better "coach" than a "player"? Is college the only route towards success in life? This final query calls into question the entire narrative of success in the Western culture. Go to school. Graduate. Go to college. Graduate. Get great job, get paid lots of money, and be successful. But this narrative, so rigid and pounded into our grads' heads from the moment they enter high school, might not be the only way. Instead of focusing on graduation-from-an-institution as success, Monsters University dares to send the message that hard work, loyalty, integrity of character, a community of belonging, and humility are the defining marks of a successful individual. That's a monster...I mean message, I can get behind.