Unwrap the Layers of Monsters University this Holiday

Perhaps Halloween is the holiday of choice at Monsters University but we have Thanksgiving, Thanksgivukkah, Chanukah, and Christmas fast approaching.  Monsters University just released their Blue-ray DVD sets and they make the perfect gift for all the monsters in your family big or little.  If you haven’t seen it yet, save it for your next family gathering because it will entertain the whole family.

Photo courtesy of Pixar
Photo courtesy of Pixar

School:  It is a little world that carries a whole lot of meaning.  From the privilege of going to a top school in your city, in the country, in the world to the privilege of being able to attend school at all.  School is a wonderful, magical, safe place for some.  For others, school is full of anxiety, stress, and shame.  I live in Cambridge at the threshold of Harvard University and in Massachusetts a state that must have the largest number of universities per square foot!  I am also the daughter of an academic, and I myself love being a student. After my Masters, if time and money were no object I would have been happy to continue on and get a Doctorate.  Having said all that, I don’t believe that university is the right path for everyone and I definitely feel like the black sheep in my community with that opinion.  So, when I saw Monsters University, I was singing inside because it is the first modern story I know of that celebrates individuals and success in a different way recognizing that there is more than one ladder to the top.

Just like University, the “student body” at Pixar spent four years playing, working, failing, and succeeding to put together this “final thesis”:  Monsters University.  I had the chance to meet with producer, Kori Rae, and learn a little bit more about the making of the movie.

Monsters University Producer, Kori Rae poses for her portrait at Pixar Animation Studios on February 6, 2013 in Emeryville, CA. (Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland/Pixar)
Monsters University Producer, Kori Rae poses for her portrait at Pixar Animation Studios on February 6, 2013 in Emeryville, CA. (Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland/Pixar)

Kori Rae is the producer of Disney Pixar‘s 14th feature film and first prequel, Monsters University, released this past summer (2013).  Rae joined Pixar in 1993 in the Commercials Division and since then has worked on Toy StoryA Bug’s Life, Golden Globe winning Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Academy Award winning movie The Incredibles, as well as Up, and Car Toons.

Let’s start with the beautiful setting of Monsters University.  If you have seen the movie and you live locally, you’ll recognize so much of Harvard University.  Ms. Rae mentioned that they also encompassed the expansive feel of Berkley’s campus which allowed the sense of possibility around any given corner.  They also visited other iconic American universities like Princeton to be able to capture the old buildings, creating a sense of history and legacy.

My main question for Ms. Rae was about this underlying commentary on higher education.  I have always believed that too many people pay too much money to get a university degree.  Gone are the days when you followed the university track to be handed a secure, great paying job at the end of your journey.  However, our perception of college hasn’t changed to match that.  I look forward to the day when apprenticeships, trade schools, and community colleges are recognized for what they can offer students.  The problem is that class, “brand name” schools, and the “old boys club” are all still so intertwined with it all and everyone seems to want a chance at that fantasy.

So, given this state of limbo we seem to be in, I wondered whether Pixar was worried about the message they were sending and how parents might react to it. The interesting parallel here is that Pixar’s animators all got to Pixar via different paths. There crew members from all sorts of different educational as well as occupational backgrounds including lawyers, doctors, baseball players, teachers and coaches.  They took a circuitous route to be where they are today.  Kori Rae, herself, is a former teacher who was a star basketball player.  Rae was headed on a path to the Olympics until an injury fouled her out of that game.  Ms. Rae then became a coach and eventually followed a path that led to Pixar .

Ms. Rae explained how working at Pixar is very much about playing on a team.  Nothing gives you more experience, sheds light on life problems, teaches you to talk and work with others than playing on a team.  Like athletes coming back from a loss, story artists need thick skins because an entire scene will get scrapped and it is just part of the process.  There is an environment of healthy competition at Pixar.  In Monsters University (MU) Sully helps Mike realize he’s a better coach than a player.  Sometimes that’s the best lesson anyone can learn.  Whether in life (parenthood, adulthood) or in an academic setting, Kori Rae, reflected:  “It is your friends who help you realize your strengths.”

One of the quirky aspects of Monsters University that I loved was that the top sorority was a goth sorority.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around how that came to be until Ms. Rae pointed out that a lot of those working on MU went to art school where there were no traditional sororities.  Then all of a sudden it all made sense.

My children who are afraid of everything when it comes to movies, finally agreed to go see a movie in the theatre, which is scary itself because it is big and dark, and we all went to see Monsters University.  We all loved it!  The team at Pixar did an amazing job of creating a monster movie that not only appealed to adults and children but also had the perfect balance of fun and fright.

The colors of the Monsters are bright and playful.  The major scare scene references classic horror movies with motifs that are perhaps not iconic triggers for young children.  The color is pulled out of the scene and tropes such as the scary doll and backward playing record create the frightening atmosphere and get the adrenaline pumping for just the right amount of time so that even my tentative children could handle it without the repercussions of nightmares for the rest of the week.

The Blu-ray DVD which just came out includes some fabulous bonus material including a wonderful animated short (I love animated shorts!) which you must watch as a family before the Thanksgiving coma sets.  The Blue Umbrella, directed by Saschka Unseld and produced by Marc Greenberg, is a sweet city story.

The other bonus is a wonderful “reading between the lines” experience.  There is a look at “Campus Life” which is a day in the life of a Pixar production crew member.  Ms. Rae mentioned that crew members were shooting footage of their days on their phones.  In addition, the behind the scenes crew were given full access during the making of MU.

As this is Pixar’s first prequel, the behind the scenes “Story School” takes a look at everything from the challenges of creating a prequel to how jokes and gags are created.  MU has an incredible “set” and the lighting in the movie is exceptional.  The behind the scenes bonus material walks you through everything from the architecture to the scoring of the movie and the creation of colorscripts.

For your new college student, or your soon to be graduate, the Monsters University Blu-ray sets are a perfect gift this Thanksgivukkah or Christmas especially with the “Paths to Pixar” bonus.  College students can be so stressed out this time of year that a little fine tuned levity from the movie itself can be a welcome gift.  The Paths to Pixar MU edition though takes a look at members of the MU crew’s stories as they share the challenges they overcame along their paths from different points in their lives to Pixar.

Regardless of which holidays you celebrate the messages about a childhood dream, changing paths to reach that dream, and that life includes doors that will shut and others you have to be willing to go open are perfect to embrace as we finish of this year and head towards the next.

If you just can’t wait for the DVD set to arrive by mail that’s okay, as of October 29th Monsters University is available On Demand as well.

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