I went to see Monsters University recently. Or rather, recently to when I’m writing this; probably not recently to when I’m posting it. It seems to be taking me longer and longer between writing and posting.
Anyway, Monsters University …
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS (OF A SORT) HERE.
UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN MONSTERS INC.
IN WHICH CASE, YOU’VE ALREADY SEEN ALL THE SPOILERS
… is a really, really good film which I just didn’t really enjoy. I liked all the component parts. I liked the characters, scenes, dialogue, imagery, story and music … but was, largely, bored.
No, not bored … disinterested. Disconnected. I watched, but didn’t care.
I think that’s because of Monsters Inc. If Monsters Inc. didn’t yet exist or I hadn’t yet seen it, I would have loved Monsters University …
But it does and I have.
To me, the central dramatic question of Monsters University is “Will Mike become a scarer?”
Well … no. No, he won’t. I know I won’t because he isn’t. Present tense. Monsters University is all in the past. Monsters Inc. is the present. Mike isn’t a scarer. That’s one of the facts which was indelibly stamped on my brain before I went to see the film. It’s part of who the character is. In the same way I know Captain Kirk isn’t a painter and decorator or Batman isn’t a florist.
Or perhaps a more relevant way of looking at it is Doctor McCoy isn’t a starship captain and Alfred isn’t a costumed vigilante. If they had grown up wanting to be the hero, then that would be an interesting and semi-tragic bit of backstory; but I’m not sure it would make for an interesting film. It’s a good piece of a film, but is watching a character fail to become the person you already know they’re not a good story in and of itself?
Putting it another way: can you root for a character/invest in their story when you know they’re not going to achieve their goal?
The odd thing about the Monsters University is that’s the whole story, there’s nothing else to it. I can’t remember ever seeing another film where the ending was so clearly set in my mind.*
Okay, so I didn’t know the how or the why of Mike’s failure; but I knew he would fail.
You could argue you know the end of most films – Superman will save the day, Indiana Jones will find the treasure and James Bond will get the girl. Sometimes twice and occasionally (and uncomfortably) whether she wants him to or not.
But to me, that’s normal suspension of disbelief. I know the hero will win but am prepared to pretend I don’t in order to enjoy the film because, fuck, this might be the one time they fail. I’m 99.9999999% positive they won’t; but they might.
To me, the fun of a film lies in that 0.0000001%
But that’s not what I saw in Monsters University. This was knowing the hero is going to fail. 100% positive. Worse than that, it’s knowing the hero will be much better off (and happier) once he has failed.
It’s watching the hero pursue the wrong goal and having to wait 90 odd minutes for him to work it out.
To me, Monsters University is an origin story, which is fine. I love stuff like that. I love watching how famous partnerships began or careers got started. I know Clark Kent will become Superman, Bruce Wayne will become Batman and Peter Parker will become Spider-Man. I know all this and can’t fool myself into pretending they might not. I can’t suspend my disbelief. When I know the outcome, it stops being a WILL question and becomes a HOW. I don’t really find HOW questions dramatic – they can be interesting on an intellectual, documentary level; but rarely on a visceral, emotional level. Luckily, origin stories are usually structured so the origin, the HOW they become the thing you know they will become, is at most half of the film. After that, you get another story.
Most recently: Superman had to fight off Kryptonians intent making Earth more dangerous for themselves; Batman had to stop some loons from destroying Gotham by making everyone else loonier and Spider-Man had to stop a bit of a dull lizard-bomb.
Sometimes these origin stories weave the second story into the origin narrative (like in X-Men or in Batman Begins); sometimes the first story comes to a grinding halt (there you go, sir: snazzy cape, natty boots and a set of super powers … you’re all done! I expect an arch-nemesis will be along to monologue at you in a minute or two); but either way you get two stories:
How did X become X?
Will X overcome Y?
I like WILL questions. Will X fall for Y? Will X rescue the thing from the other thing? Will X find his glasses?
HOW … meh. Okay, I am interested; but I don’t care.
Monsters University is all HOW and no WILL.
Which is such a shame. Monsters University is clearly a superb film. It would have been fantastic as a stand alone film. And Monsters Inc. would have been fantastic as a sequel.
But that’s not what happened.
Monsters Inc. is a superb stand alone film; but I found Monsters University to be oddly empty and just backstory. I think it adds a lovely new sheen to Monsters Inc. Next time I watch Monsters Inc. it will be with fresh eyes, seeing nuances I didn’t know were there before. Monsters University has made Monsters Inc. even better than it already was … whilst at the same time failing to keep my attention.
I guess the problem was, although there were two questions, one cancelled the other out:
How did X become X?
Will X become someone else?
In order to become emotionally engaged in the second question, I would have had to stop asking the first question. I would have needed to not know it was an origin story. To me it needed a different second question – a WILL question which I didn’t already know the answer to which was wholly resolved in the movie. WILL Mike find the thief? WILL Mike uncover the dastardly plot? WILL Mike unmask the villain?
I guess the lesson I learnt is HOW questions pique my curiosity, but WILL questions engage me in the story.
Or something like that.
I also thought it was really odd the way they ended the university section of the film. When Mike and Sulley discover they don’t need Monsters University in order to be the people they want to be, it’s kind of akin to the filmmakers telling you you don’t need to bother watching everything until this point in order to enjoy Monsters Inc. It’s a film about a character going to university where he discovers he doesn’t need to bother going to university. Oh. Right. So Monsters University is a waste of time? Is that an allegory for this whole film being a bit of a waste of time? Is allegory the right word?
We may never know.
Obviously I’m in a minority with this feeling – certainly the family behind me in the cinema loved the film. Loved it so much they shrieked with laughter at everything. EVERYTHING. Mike walks into a room, hilarious. Sulley breathes, hysterical. Randall has fingers, tears of laughter and whoops of fucking joy.
In fact, come to think of it, the HOW and the WILL of Monsters University were drowned out by the more pressing WHAT and WHEN of the family behind:
WHAT the fuck are they laughing at?
WHEN will they either shut the fuck up or laugh themselves to death so I can enjoy the film?
Maybe that was just the problem all along?
* People usually toss Titanic into the conversation round about here, because they knew the boat would sink. The boat sinking isn’t the fucking point! The boat sinking is a HOW question, one you watch with detached interest. The WILL question is “will Jack and Rose get together?” If you thought the answer to that was obvious from the start, then I think you’re lying. Because they didn’t and NO is almost never the answer to that question.
Obviously, if you didn’t like either of the characters or the film as a whole then you probably thought maybe, maybe not – I don’t care … but you didn’t KNOW.
Unless someone told you.
Or it’s mentioned in the beginning of the film and I’ve just forgotten. Which it might be.
Lincoln! That’s a film where I was a hundred percent certain of the answer to the WILL question. That film tries to ask WILL he succeed; but really it’s just a docudrama about HOW he succeeded. I kind of enjoyed that film without really being emotionally involved.