Imprisoned in our own home, we decided (that is, Billy, 11, decided, with Mom’s backing) that we’d watch Monster University, a 2013 Disney animated prequel to 2001’s Monster Inc. by Pixar. Monster U. features six cute young frat monsters led by a scare-thee-not cyclops voiced by Billy Crystal. The plot unfolds on a campus whose peculiar ornamental monstrosities add up to a parodic Collegiate Gothic style, with a Richardsonian twist.
“You should write about it,” quoth my wife, Victoria, referring to the campus setting and recalling her husband’s fixation on the crisis of campus architecture. She added that she’d located on her iPod an article comparing the film’s academic buildings and their various inspirations on real campuses. In “The Real-Life Buildings that Helped Inspire the Monsters University Campus,” author Peter Jacobs, writing for Business Insider, describes the research that went into the MU setting:
In preparation for the film, the California-based Pixar team took trips to local schools UC Berkeley and Stanford, and went across the country to check out Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. … This fits in pretty nicely with Pixar’s goal of creating a unique yet relatable campus laden with “ritual” and “tradition.”
Jacobs notes that no one academic building inspired any particular Monsters U. facility, but that in an effort to “make the movie as realistic as possible,” the Pixar team sought to “absorb the feeling” of the real-life campuses. None of Jacobs’s comparisons with real academic buildings matched very well with the MU buildings they were paired with in his article. This merely suggests that the traveling researchers absorbed plenty of feeling, possibly with some chemical assistance. Perhaps, to borrow a relatively young cliché from the ’80s drug wars, the pixilated Pixarites were “scared straight.”
Indeed, Monsters University has an enviable campus, with its academic quad surrounded by buildings that, festooned with monsterly details of embellishment, still resonate with the beauty of the classic quadrangle of a typically historic American elite university campus. No doubt Pixar’s researchers were smart enough to ignore the modernist monstrosities (pun intended) on most college campuses. Leaving them on the cutting room floor was a bow to the difficulty of realism, although, in fact, Ivy League institutions such as Brown and Harvard have tried to keep modernist buildings outside their main campus, much as Paris and Rome have managed to keep towers outside of their central historic districts. Including modernist facilities in the film would have added a confusing dissonance to the academic experience that even a university for monsters would obviously prefer to avoid.
By the end of the movie Mike (Crystal) and James Sullivan (John Goodman) – the rivals who become friends – end up working for Monsters Inc. No doubt the pair look back fondly to their college years at Monster U. Surely the memories of its campus classicism dance in their dreams, and this helps them fill their alma mater’s bulging coffers. Maybe some of the phalanxes of development administrators and facilities managers who bulk out university budgets can learn a lesson or two from the film about good ways to bring in more money to fund their salaries.