Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

‘Monsters University': Three Missed Opportunities

By Rick Hess — July 03, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Monsters University is cute and it’s modestly amusing. But it’s a Pixar film -- I expected much better. Hard to believe it was made by the same folks who created Finding Nemo, Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, or the Toy Story trilogy. The MU formula is pretty simple. It’s one part buddy flick, one part Animal House, one part Bad News Bears, and two parts Revenge of the Nerds. Not much more to it than that.

It’s a pretty simple tale for anyone who remembers Monsters Inc. In this prequel, Mike (Billy Crystal’s little round green guy with the giant eyeball) and Sully (John Goodman’s hulking, pink and blue monster) meet as enemies while studying to be “scarers” at Monster University. Sully is a lazy but naturally gifted student, who comes from a famous family. Mike is the bookish grind with no natural aptitude. They get in a spat, the no-nonsense dean throws them out, and they wind up forced to work together when they cast their lot with a fraternity of losers in order to get a shot at redemption (in a plot device lifted almost wholly intact from Revenge of the Nerds). It’s all pleasant enough, but there’s not much to it.

It’s a shame, because Pixar has a gift for wrapping profound lessons in hilarious, moving, candy-coated garb. And we could use some of that when it comes to today’s conversations about higher education, opportunity, accomplishment, and entitlement. For what it’s worth, here are three places where I thought the Pixar team missed the chance to say something more interesting:

1. The Incredibles famously tugged on our fascination with insisting that everyone is special. In that flick, when Dash is told by his mom that “everyone is special,” he dejectedly mumbles, “then no one is,” while Mr. Incredible laments that a fourth-grade “graduation” is just a case of rewarding the mediocre and the mundane. In Monsters University, there’s nothing so interesting. In fact, at the end of the film, it’s not clear that either aptitude or hard work has much relationship to how the cast fares at good ol’ MU.

2. The movie (unintentionally and casually) seems to make a case that knowledge and learned expertise are fairly pointless. While there’s one early point at which Sully stumbles because of disinterest in his craft, that’s the exception. More telling: at a pivotal moment, Sully tries to teach Mike that all his book-learning is irrelevant to really excelling at his craft. Generally, I think any fair-minded six-year-old watching the film would get the message that learning all the bookish stuff is pretty tangential to actually being a good scarer. This is clearly not the intended message; it just looks to be the result of lazy writing.

3. Helen Mirren voices the no-nonsense Dean Hardscrabble, and Alfred Molina the “scaring” professor. With that kind of talent, you’d seem to have a terrific opportunity for the screenwriters to have some fun looking at the teaching relationship. After all, Pixar writers have dabbled in this kind of thing (in Cars or with Willem DaFoe’s wise old hand in Finding Nemo), but they’ve never really had much cause to depict what it looks like for a teacher to inspire, mentor, and instruct. I’d have loved to see them play with a teacher helping an entitled, gifted student cultivate responsibility and discipline -- or a bookish, insecure student develop a sense of teamwork and self-efficacy. While Mike and Sully do mature in the movie, it happens with the faculty operating pretty much as bystanders or foils. It was a real missed chance to give little kids a look at that kind of relationship, and for Pixar’s gifted folks to tweak some conventions and comfortable nostrums.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Hundreds of Conn. Bus Drivers Threaten to Walk Off the Job Over Vaccine Mandate
More than 200 school bus drivers could walk off the job in response to a vaccination mandate that goes into effect Monday.
1 min read
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk.
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. <br/>
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo
Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)