Pixar and the Beauty of Ugly Emotions

The reviews are in for Pixar’s latest project, Monsters University, and most of its criticisms […]

Win Jordan / 6.25.13


The reviews are in for Pixar’s latest project, Monsters University, and most of its criticisms direct readers to previous films in the franchise, implying Pixar has produced better (reinforcing the Law of High Quality Content). But the reviewers still say that the film is immensely entertaining. I can’t disagree. I loved its parallels with the classic college stereotypes—the overly peppy orientation leader, the coffee-guzzling finals studying, the privilege-pompous frat stars. The film even disguises a game of beer pong as monster tic-tac toe.

And while these tropes are fun to see re-enacted with Oozma Kappa in the Scare Maze, they neglect a crucial Pixar staple. Alyssa Rosenberg explains what many reviewers are saying, that it doesn’t measure up because “Pixar movies are at their best when they aren’t afraid of the darkness in relationships like marriage, the ones between parents and children, or even between friends.”

Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic builds on this:

Oozma KappaThe Incredibles dealt with alienation and middle-aged listlessness; Finding Nemo and Up dealt with loss, grief, and the sometimes-uneven healing of broken families…For example: The underlying questions of some of Pixar’s earlier greats include Finding Nemo‘s “Will little lost motherless Nemo finally be reunited with his worried dad, and will they learn to appreciate each other as they are?” and Up‘s “Will Carl and Russell save their beloved bird companion from an evil, fame-hungry explorer, honor Carl’s beloved dead wife’s wishes, and create the father-and-son relationship they each never had?” Family and honor hang in the balance.

By contrast, “Will two monsters named Mike and Sulley who just met learn to get along so that they get to stay enrolled in their college major of choice?” packs less of an emotional wallop. Especially when—alas, the curse of a prequel—we already know the answer to that first question.

Pixar prides itself on having created tiny miracles in the world of filmmaking by adhering to [the] “bold, new, beautiful ideas” vision for the studio. But perhaps it’s the lesser-heralded, opposite approach—the “old, familiar, ugly feelings” vision, maybe?—that it should revisit.”

Thinking back on it, it is true. Up’s opening montage. Finding Nemo’s long voyage of reconciliation. In The Incredibles, Flash learns what it really means to be “special” outside of being really, really fast. In Toy Story 3 Andy and Woody and Buzz let go of childhood. They strike an emotional cord, not because they are sorrowful, but because they take an honest approach to the familiar feelings of life, and they find the good in them. Pixar has the uncanny and Spirit-led ability of making one simultaneously laugh and cry.


Don’t mistake: Monsters University is incredibly entertaining; it just does not pack the abreactive punch that makes Pixar what it is. Helen Mirren voices the Law as Dean Hardscrabble. The film introduces the “adult concepts” of social mobility, and the American dream a little too late in the film to make any lasting impression.

Monsters U shows that Pixar can be great even when they play it safe, but we know that they can be greater when they take the risk of including the troubling emotions that are all too present in everyday life. This direct line to the heart will always be what resonates most.


Speaking of the heart, well, you might know that Mockingbird has a great book on Pixar’s best, The Gospel According to Pixar, available available here!