Released in 2013, Monsters University has managed to capture the hearts of many through its strong thematic storytelling and ability to adapt and tell a fresh take on a beloved animated world. As it reaches its tenth anniversary, we take a look back at the themes that make this animated prequel such a gem to watch.
When I first heard the announcement of this film, I was skeptical that it would be anything more than a cash grab, riding on the coattails of Monster’s Inc. Animated sequels and prequels have done this before, more often than not feeling tired and inferior in quality. Focusing on the early years of Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan, we are given an origin story that surprised me. It is a tale full of heart, resonating with audiences of all ages. We watch the two leads navigate university life, amongst a backdrop that introduces fun, quirky characters, fleshing out the world of monsters and looking at friendship and identity, in a way that feels new and exciting. Sure, it is the typical college experience movie in some sense, fitting easily into the established Hollywood genre, yet somehow, by surrounding itself with the comedy and heart of the Monsters Inc world, it manages to deliver.
Friendship is the core theme of Monsters University, looking at the importance of forming bonds. It pits Sulley and Mike against each other as rivals before allowing them to naturally grow closer through their shared experiences. This builds up until the finale of the film has our characters grow into those they were at the start of the original. It is a tale of motivation and overcoming odds, but it is also a tale of self discovery. Our characters are taken on a journey of identification, finding out who they are, and we’re along for the ride.
We see each student bring something to the table. We see the main pair overcome the expectations of their society as well as becoming valued in the world that they so desperately wish to become a part of. They are taught that despite their failures, the determination that they have for their goals can spur them on, a message to the viewer to never give up. It is a story of growth that is a far cry from the themes of the original, yet plays homage none the less.
We understand diversity and the overcoming of stereotypical differences, allowing each monster, no matter the shape or size, to shine, with all of the core cast being valued in their abilities. This allows audiences young and old to remember not to judge based on appearance and to look at the bigger picture. This calls back to a theme of Monsters Inc. The monsters aren’t scary, they are just misunderstood. University is a place of finding oneself, a place of guidance and discovery, through hard work and determination, and this film, coupled with gorgeous animation, manages to put that point across in great strength.
Many may look at Monsters University and see nothing more than a poor attempt to cash in on a much beloved animated film, but when you open the door to the themes of this piece, we start to see a lot deeper than just a scary exterior. We see friendship, identity and themes of resilience, aspects of the human condition that we crave for as we make our way in the world, and that is what Monsters University is. It is a study into how we find ourselves, how we make our way in the world, and how important it is to be ourselves when we do it.