It’s an interesting thing, settling into a seat in a theater filled with squirmy, popcorn butter-fingered children for a G-rated movie, knowing that half the references will be to movies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds and Back to School. And yet that’s exactly what Monsters U is: a witty, irreverent, sweet and frequently hilarious take on the classic college comedy.
Only, you know. Animated. By Pixar. With monsters.
But is it right for your kids?
To be sure, my children, 6 and 8, adored Monsters University. And they’re not even super familiar with the original Monsters Inc., except to remember which one was Mike (Billy Crystal) and which one was Sulley (John Goodman). Still, the sight gags and funny voices in this prequel to the original, are enough to keep young kids entertained regardless of their familiarity with the franchise. And unless yours is very easily scared, the “scary” monster parts didn’t make my youngest flinch even once.
The story is centered around the two unlikely friends who, facing expulsion from the college program they’ve both dreamed about, need to prove their ability to be scary enough monsters via a Greek Games style competition
Much of Monsters U is written with adults in mind–though not in an offputting or offensive way; merely because the college references and horror film cliches (see also: Hotel Transylvania) will be over the heads of all but the most precocious junior high students.
Within the first ten minutes I was explaining in loud whispers what a varsity jacket is, what it means to steal a mascot of a rival school, what the heck a rival school is anyway, what it means to pick a major, what hazing is, what it means to cram for finals (and why all that coffee), what a “legacy” is, and why they call it “the Greek System.” To say nothing of the intricacies of the jock v nerd theme that will have you thinking Ogre! Ogre! Ogre! in your head throughout the film.
Or just me?
I didn’t spend as much time explaining why I was laughing out loud at the opening campus scene as we fly past burnouts playing hackey-sack, perky campus tour guides, and a hilarious sequence in which your classic college archetypes try to recruit Freshmen into the various clubs. In fact the excellent script is packed with enough of these little gems I would hapilly see it a second time to catch ones I may have missed.
But for kids, Monsters U at its core is a sweet story about unlikely friendships, working hard to achieve your dreams, and accepting who you are. Even if who you are is a giant green eyeball with legs. And those are themes I’m glad to have my children exposed to.
Admittedly it’s tough to make a successful family movie that works on two levels; most notably I’m reminded of Cars 2, a movie which we liked, but was plagued with controversy because of the balance of adult themes and kid humor. Monsters U, however, succeeds beautifully for everyone.
I asked my oldest what the message of the movie was and she said, “If you really want to do something, you should keep working really hard at it and fighting for it even if people say you can’t.” My kindergartener took away, “Good friends stand up for each other and bad friends walk away from you” which is a great lesson as far as I’m concerned.
And the casting, as with all Pixar films, is pitch perfect. The supporting standouts are easily Mike and Sully’s fraternity odd assortment of brothers, voiced by Dave Foley and John Haye, Peter Sohn, and Joel Murray, and Charlie Day, my children’s vote for “funniest guy.”
My vote though, goes to Julia Sweeney playing the perfect clueless 50s-throwback House Mom, who babies the frat house, and is prone to doing laundry during the basement initiation ceremonies.
And for you Pixar fanatics, yes, John Ratzenberger makes his traditional cameo. And it’s funny. You’ll have to look for yourself, though.
If I have one caveat, it’s that the female characters are relegated to secondary roles: they’re the girlfriends, the mothers, the snotty sorority girls, and at best, the strict dean (voiced with evil perfection by Hellen Miren) and the Greek Council President and Scare Games emcee, Claire (Parks & Recreation‘s wry Aubrey Plaza).
Second caveat, and this is big: do not by any circumstances feel the need to explain the original reference of the Carrie pig blood scene parody, in which the unpopular Oozma Kappa (OK!) fraternity is lured to a popular frat party only to be covered in a humiliating combo of day-glo paint and sparkles unbefitting of a Scarer major.
That ones just for us grownups, ‘kay?
I will say if your child is under about 8 and prone to asking a lot of questions in movies, you might consider waiting for the DVD so you can pause and explain the references without disturbing the entire theater. But hey, ask my own daughters and they’ll tell you, “we loved it!” And they certainly did.
The surprising thing is, their mother might have liked it even more. -Liz
See Monsters University at a theater near you, just open this weekend. Poke around the website which is fun; you can play games, watch trailers, enter a theme park vacation sweepstakes, and spend time with my fave, the create-a-monster web app.