Okay with Being Okay: Pixar and Mediocrity

In their latest animated film Monsters University, Pixar takes a rather unorthodox approach to the cliché underdog story, creating a surprisingly fresh tale about mediocrity and greatness, contrasting natural talent with hard work—conveying the point that one without the other can only get a person so far. This is not the first time Pixar has taken on these themes—they are also explored in The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). However, while these two were approached from the angle of those with great abilities, who feel pressured to conform by the mediocre around them, Monsters University is unique in that the protagonist is perfectly ordinary, and no amount of striving or dreaming will change that. In fact, because it serves as a prequel to Monsters, Inc. (2001), the audience already knows that friendly monster Mike Wasowski is going to fail in his goal to become a "scarer;" that is, one of the monsters that collect screams from human children in order to power the city of Monstropolis.

What a sobering message—coming from Disney, no less!—that not all dreams come true, even with all the wanting and hard work in the world. But this is not meant to discourage dreaming or pursuing. To the contrary—sometimes failed dreams lead us to someplace better than we expected, the place where we're truly meant to be.

In The Incredibles, the golden age of heroes comes to an end when citizens start suing superheroes for property damage, forcing those with special abilities into hiding. As a result, super-strong Mr. Incredible (alias Bob Parr) has created a normal life for himself and his family, but yearns for the "good old days," when his powers were appreciated. His wife Helen, formerly known as the super-flexible Elastigirl, criticizes his mental absence at home, and for nearly exposing their secret countless times. The film satirizes modern society's tendency to give out trophies for effort, so to speak, when Bob complains that his son's fourth grade "graduation" is "psychotic," saying that society "keep[s] coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but when someone comes along that's really exceptional," society feels threatened by their talent.

Their children have powers, too: shy teenager Violet can become invisible or create a force field, and hyperactive fourth-grader Dash has unbelievable speed. A subplot in the film deals with the argument over whether Dash should be allowed to participate in sports or not—to Helen, it seems that her son has an unfair advantage over the "normal" children, while Bob argues that it's unfair that Dash has to mask his natural aptitude in the name of equality, that he should be allowed to do his best. This hearkens back to a real-life issue: to many, it seems unfair for prodigies to compete against "ordinary" people, especially when something seems so effortless for them—but on the other hand, is it fair to keep someone from using a natural ability that just happens to set them apart?

When Helen repeats the truism, "Everyone's special," her son cynically responds, "Which is just another way of saying no one is." Similarly, the villain Syndrome resents people with abilities out of jealousy (he has none), and so his dastardly plot is to eliminate real superheroes, while creating gadgets that will appear to give ordinary people superpowers. This will make everyone special, he says, "And when everyone's super, no one will be."

With comments like these, the film conveys the idea that, in order for true greatness to exist, not everyone can be equal—some people will have to be superior to others at certain tasks—and that is not a bad thing. Greatness will disappear if everyone is the same. Sometimes it seems unfair to the "normal" people when someone is a prodigy, but that is not an excuse to pressure them to hide or deny their innate ability, simply because others feel threatened by their talent.

In the film Ratatouille, a rat named Remy finds himself captivated with the human world, because of humans' ability to create and add to the world instead of just surviving. After watching cooking shows on television hosted by the late chef Gusteau, Remy dreams of becoming a master chef himself—and seems to have a gift for it. Despite his father's disapproval and his brother's bewilderment, Remy makes his way to Paris and pursues his dream, under the guidance of Gusteau, who is only in his imagination but often personifies Remy's conscience. Through a misunderstanding, a soup that Remy cooked is thought to be the work of Linguini, a clumsy garbage boy working in Gusteau's restaurant, and the two must collaborate in order to keep up appearances.

Despite having no cooking ability, Linguini receives credit for Remy's dishes, in return for being Remy's "puppet." The sinister food critic Anton Ego, prepared to give their meal a poor review, finds himself at a loss for words when Remy cooks him ratatouille, a stew that Ego's mother used to make for him as a child, and thus holds emotional significance for him. Linguini reluctantly reveals the chef's true identity to him, which causes the snobby Ego to reach a new understanding about art and criticism. Though he had long mocked Gusteau's famous motto, "Anyone can cook," Ego now believes he understands what the late chef meant by it: "Not anyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere." Thus, greatness comes from what one accomplishes, no matter how humble one's background.

At the same time, the film acknowledges that not anyone can be a great artist, only some. No matter how much training he gets from his fellow cooks, and no matter how much effort he puts in, Linguini will never be a good chef. He does not have the creativity that Remy does, or his improvisational skills. However, the experience does lead Linguini to discover a talent he might never have realized otherwise: when the rest of the staff walks out on him, he is forced to wait tables himself, and is shown to be quite good at it. When Remy spies on the restaurant kitchen for the first time, he calls the garbage boy a "nobody," and does not think he is even worth mentioning—but imaginary-Gusteau insists that he is still part of the kitchen. While it is a subtle point, the film seems to be saying that not everyone's talent will be glamorous or high-profile, but every role has some importance, even the seemingly unexceptional ones.

In the same way, Monsters University focuses on an ordinary person, who eventually realizes that his true talent is not the prestigious, visible one he was hoping for. Mike enters the University with the expectation of becoming a scarer—but despite getting the best grades in his class on the theoretical portion, he simply is not scary, a fact which he has difficulty accepting. Despite his intense hard work, Mike simply cannot change who he is—which makes him all the more angry when his rival, and future best friend, Sully can be scary without putting forth any effort at all.

However, because of his obvious natural talent, and his family name, teachers expect a great deal from Sully, even though his grades are poor. Because he has never had to work hard before, he is accustomed to coasting, and ends up needing Mike's help to get back into the Scaring Program, which both of them had flunked out of. Through Mike's management, he improves his ability, and the two develop a camaraderie. If they can win a scaring championship, they will be accepted back into the program—but Mike is the weak link in their fraternity. At first, it seems as if Mike really succeeded after all, because he manages to beat the scaring simulator—but he realizes that Sully rigged the competition in their favor, which devastates him.

Determined to prove to himself that he can be scary, Mike breaks the rules and enters the human world, which is considered extremely dangerous, given that monsters believe humans to be highly toxic. Sully follows him, but the dean cuts the power on the door until the authorities arrive, leaving the two with no means of escape—unless they can power the door themselves by getting some real humans to scream, a feat which neither of them have accomplished yet. While Mike is unable to do so, he concocts a plan to make Sully seem as scary as possible, and they manage to frighten a group of adults enough to scream, giving them a way home.

It is Mike's creativity and tenacity coupled with Sully's natural ability that can succeed. Neither Mike's hard work nor Sully's talent alone can be enough—thus conveying the idea that talent and effort must collaborate; in this film, personified by two distinct characters that eventually coordinate perfectly together and bring out the best in one another. If one is granted with the privilege of talent, like Sully, it comes with a responsibility to hone it and use it for some good purpose—not to simply skate by without trying. At the same time, not everyone can be great, but some people can help make others great, through the less visible, more behind-the-scenes jobs that are no less important. As Mike concludes by the end of the film, "I'm okay just being okay."

All three of these films deal with greatness and averageness—but while The Incredibles and Ratatouille mainly focus on appreciating the talented, and allowing them to distinguish themselves, Monsters University is mostly about the disappointment or contentment one can find in being ordinary. Evidently, Pixar is fighting against the modern tendency to homogenize, to make everyone equal in the name of fairness, instead trying to convey to children (and adults!) that while the world needs its famous musicians and surgeons, it needs garbage truck drivers and mail carriers, too. Everyone has a role to play, and all have value—but some will get more recognition than others, and that is alright. Sometimes it's okay to just be okay.