It's been said before, usually by people much more qualified to say these things than I am, but I'll say it again: Pixar is bent under the weight of our expectations, and we have to step back for a second and remember that they are a business. They need to make money. Hence the sequels. Hence the obvious choices. As much as we have applauded their creativity and style, they still have to turn a profit, and it isn't easy.
That having been said, however, does not excuse them for making Monsters University, a movie so incredibly bland that meatloaf is suing for copyright infringement.
I don't particularly like meatloaf, but I don't hate it either, and that's the problem here.
Say what you will about Cars 2, but at least it was bad. Like, actually, objectively not a good movie. The problem with Monsters University is that it's fine. Seriously. It's okay. But it's just okay. And it's not even okay in interesting ways.
As I'm sure you know by now, the story itself is a prequel, explaining how our lovable heroes, Mike and Sully (voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman respectively) got to their place at the top of the foodchain in Monsters Inc. As such, it brings us back to when they met, in college.
The story by and large follows Mike, actually, showing how he overcame intense social awkwardness and peer exclusion to fall in love with scaring as a career, and then how he worked his way up until he got into Monsters University, the best scaring school in the land. It's cute. Not earth-shattering, but cute.
The problem Mike has, though, is that he isn't scary. Not one bit. Like, not even a little. He knows all the theories, he knows the protocol, but when it comes time to actually scare someone, he's coming up short. But he's convinced that if he just wants it badly enough, he'll make it happen.
Sully, on the other hand, is apparently a legacy at the school, and come from a long line of scarers. Unfortunately for him, he's really only good at one kind of scaring, so while he's very good at that, he's hampered in the rest of the class. And thus a friendship is born.
Or rather, a rivalry. Because Sully and Mike can't get their acts together and manage to both get kicked out of the scaring program at the same time, thanks to one of the very few female characters in the film, Dean Hardscrabble. She sends them on their way with barely the bat of an eyelash, which sets the whole thing in motion.
From there the boys have to agree to work together, joining a frat and entering it into the Scare Games, a college-wide competition that, if they win, will earn them places in the scaring program again. Of course their team is a bunch of not at all scary monsters, and of course they have to room together, and of course they learn the value and meaning of friendship, etc, etc.
It's not a bad movie, it's just predictable. There wasn't anything in the film that really surprised me, and while the emotions were all very sincere, they were plain and a bit vague. Like it was all just happening but you didn't have to get super invested in the story.
What I came out of the theater with, though, was a sense of doom about Pixar's future, and interestingly one that has little to do with their sequelitis.
There were only three female characters of note (or that had names and lines) in the movie, and every single one of them was a trope. Not one female character had personhood in the whole film, and coming from a studio that's done fourteen films with only one female protagonist, that's a little distressing.
The three female characters were as follows: Dean Hardscrabble, the uptight British teacher who dislikes our protagonists and their out of the box ways, Sherri Squibbles, the mother of one of their fraternity brothers, and Claire (I had to look her name up) the co-president of MU's Greek Council. That is all of the ladies.
I'm not saying this should have been a romance or anything. I was quite okay with it not being one, and I've appreciated Pixar's seeming commitment to avoid too much romance in their films overall. But there was plenty of room in the film for a female character. A friend, a fellow Scaring major, even a sympathetic professor or a scornful sorority girl (who got more than a couple of lines, I feel the need to clarify).
The female characters we did get were okay on their own, but taken together they suggest something a little bit unnerving about the underlying world. That as much as the story may protest to the contrary, women are only in the story to frustrate the protagonists, or tuck them into bed, or narrate what they're doing. Women, or rather female monsters, don't get to actually do anything.
And that's just sad. Pixar makes movies for kids, movies where they can look at the screen and see a world that's new and exciting and speaks to their lives right now. When you show someone a character that they can relate to, it changes them. It gives them a goal to which they can aspire. That's why we always talk about role models and aspirations and dreams. But it seems Pixar isn't making movies for kids. They're making movies for fifty percent of kids. Because they think, consciously or not, that girls just aren't as important.
And that's genuinely terrifying.