Monsters University: the power of labels

Words, as Walker Percy liked to say, have a “discovering power” for us as humans. This lesson is nicely displayed in, of all places, the new children’s movie Monsters University.

Monsters University ( M U )

Monsters University (Photo credit: Brave Heart)

Monsters University is a prequel to an earlier Pixar film, Monsters Inc., and it features the two main characters from the first movie, a little green monster that looks like an eyeball, otherwise knows as Mike Wazowski, and a big fuzzy blue monster, otherwise known as James P. Sullivan, or “Sulley.” The two of them are front and center in the picture to the left.

Here’s the crux of the new movie: little eyeball monster Wazowski wants to be a “scarer.” For the uninitiated among you, a “scarer” in this movie franchise designates a monster whose job it is to scare little human children. But Wazowski just isn’t scary. All of the plot flows from this, and flows back to this.

But your experience, the experience of the viewer, will not be that simple. If you are reading this review then you, after all, have already seen the prior movie Monsters Inc. at least 10 times with your children. This means that it has been seared into your brain that Wazowski the green eyeball does not have that job later in his life (i.e. in the other movie). Instead he operates the equipment that allows his friend Sulley to go into the human world through closet doors and scare kids, collecting their screams as power for the monster world. So you, the viewer, will constantly attempt (when not stuffing your face with popcorn) to connect what happens on the screen to that fact in your memory, to guess how Wazowski gets from point A, “scaring student” to point B, “assistant to Sulley.”

And the first thing the movie will do is begin to shake your faith in that label I just provided above, “assistant.” For Monsters University presents eyeball monster Wazowski as caring about one thing, and one thing only: becoming a scarer. He has wanted it since elementary school, and the desire has only increased with his arrival at college. He wants it desperately enough to skip parties in favor of studying. He wants it desperately enough to join forces with his arch-nemesis in the attempt to win a competition that would readmit him to scaring school after flunking out. And he even wants it desperately enough to steal a key and enter into the human world in the attempt to show himself that he “has what it takes” to be a scarer.

And so you, the viewer, are left wondering (that is, during the intervals when you have to run out to the bathroom with various kids) how the little eyeball monster thing with the Slavic name could have been so happy not being a scarer in the first movie. And don’t try to deny it–he was happy in Monsters Inc. Otherwise all his existential angst in the first movie about the intrusion of the human child (“Boo”) makes no sense whatsoever. Had Wazowski’s life actually been filled with ennui, he would have gladly welcomed all the trouble and fuss instead of being angry with Sulley about it.

(You know this is true because if you saw these movies, you either have children and secretly love that they have finally replaced your dreary social scene with true purpose (see chapter four of my forthcoming autobiography), or you are a creepy weirdo who watches children’s movies alone and who secretly longs to undergo an existential shake-up (see chapter two of my forthcoming autobiography). That is to say, to return to Walker Percy again, sometimes it is more of a problem for us as humans if the bombs don’t actually fall.)

Anyway, I digress as usual. To return to your cinematic experience, as you watch this new movie, you will begin to wonder exactly what the job title of Mr. Eyeball was way back (or forward, sorry) in Monsters Inc. Was he an Executive Assistant to the Scarer? Was he a Scare Technician? Was he a Scare Manager?

And, what was the source of his happiness? Had he “settled,” content with his union pay and benefits? Or did he have a couple of felonies on his record in the midst of an economic downturn and a sudden influx of cheap labor, making him grateful to have a job at all? Or had he internalized the advice of the philosopher Descartes to change his own desires rather than the world, and so had achieved an almost Buddha-like state that allowed him to rejoice in the menial actions of pressing buttons and pulling levers? Or was he just a scrub hanging onto the coattails of his talented buddy Sulley in order to have a shot with the pretty secretary with snakes for hair?

And so you will sit through Monsters University, your sugared and caffeinated mind feverishly working over these questions as you take it all in. And by the end things will sort of start to make sense. You see the little green eyeball monster get humbled, realize how great his friend Sulley is at scaring, and work a bunch of other jobs (starting in the mail room). His seeming contentment in the first movie will begin to seem more plausible.

But it won’t really make sense until the very end, when during their first day on the “Scare Floor,” Sulley walks by Wazowski, pats his synoptic little green friend on the back, and calls him “Coach.”

That’s right, Sulley “labeled” his little green friend. How insensitive. Except it isn’t. It is remarkably sensitive for an animated character–that is to say, it takes remarkable insight. And once Sulley Monster says it, all of the experiences of the movies will “click” into place for you. That one word, that one label, suddenly organizes and categories your thoughts. It suddenly helps you to discover something about the enigmatic eyeball Wazowski. No matter what Wazowski’s job title actually is, what he really is, is a coach–someone whose vocation is to help others to achieve great things. Someone who knows enough in some particular context to bring out the best in someone else.

And since you know what a coach is, you understand that it is indeed a participation in whatever is “coached,” be it soccer or scaring. As Aristotle says, what is done by our friends is, in some way, done by us as well. So Wazowski never left scaring behind. He still engages in it, albeit as a coach, and this is the secret to his happiness.

No, this “label” is not arbitrarily and unfairly slapped upon Wazowski. On the contrary, it captures what is essential about him as a character, what is true. That is the awesome power of labels, and of words in general. They reveal what is–even in regard to fictional entities, whose existence is, shall we say, a bit thin.

Why have I bothered tormenting you with all of this philosophy masquerading as a movie review, when all you really wanted to know is if your 2 year-old can handle the movie? <Yes> In short, because labels constantly get a bad rap, at least when they are applied to people. And labels do indeed get used to bully and abuse; they can be extremely damaging. But that does not mean we should attempt to dispense with them, to live in a “world without labels.”

For such a world will no longer be a world we understand.

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4 Responses to Monsters University: the power of labels

  1. Myaz_Nuggetz says:

    Reblogged this on Myaz_Nuggetz.

  2. Maura says:

    Love this:

    “No, this “label” is not arbitrarily and unfairly slapped upon Wazowski. On the contrary, it captures what is essential about him as a character, what is true. That is the awesome power of labels, and of words in general. They reveal what is–even in regard to fictional entities, whose existence is, shall we say, a bit thin.”

    Richard Wilbur, one of my favorite poets, connects the human ability to create (or perhaps recognize?) metaphor with this idea of naming or labeling. Indeed, Adam names all of the animals in Genesis, and it is through naming them (giving them labels, as it were) that he comes to know them. And it is after labeling/naming the animals that he fully realizes there is no one fit to be his companion.

    Wilbur articulates this human ability poetically: “To me, the imagination is a faculty that fuses things, takes hold of the physical and ideal worlds and makes them one, provisionally.” In order to really know things, human beings need to name them. The tendency you mention to resists all labels comes from a certain doubt, I think, or even disbelief in the human ability to really know anything.

    Thanks for your post.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks for reading!

      And that is just an amazing read on the Book of Genesis–I’m inordinately pleased to have divine approbation of my “review” of Monsters University.

  3. Pingback: Wilbur Wisdom | Mysteries and Manners

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