GREAT FILMS: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Monsters, Inc. (USA, 2001)
Directed by Pete Docter
Starring John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi 

IMDb Top 250: #212 (3/11/13)

In the aftermath of my lukewarm review of The Incredibles, someone asked me what I would consider the great PIXAR film. I didn't want to give an immediate response without revisiting all the titles I had loved the first time round, before my critical faculties had developed to their current level. But until such a point in time, Monsters, Inc. is a very good candidate, being a truly great children's film with all the hallmarks of what makes PIXAR great.
All the best PIXAR films have a simple but engaging premise, from which an entire world can be constructed. With Toy Story 1 & 2, it was that your toys are alive and will miss you when you're not there. What could just be a gimmick was expanded out into a fascinating, complex and heart-warming story about childhood, jealousy, rejection and the fear of being abandoned. PIXAR have always been very good storytellers, laying the proper foundations of a world in which memorable characters can flourish.
With Monsters, Inc., the premise is equally straightforward: there are monsters in your wardrobe (closet if you will), but they are more afraid of you than you are of them, and they rely on you to function. From this idea is built up the entire system of the factory for harnessing children's screams, the means by which monsters can travel to our world, the hierarchies within the workplace, and the central comic conceit of a child who escapes into the monster world and isn't afraid of Sully or Mike.
Even in this set-up, Monsters, Inc. presents itself as a really great twist on monster stories, giving insight into the nature and purpose of monsters in our childhood and culture. It's a film about children learning to grow up and face their fears: either the monsters simply cease to be scary (as happens early on, when a door is shredded), or the children end up actively laughing at them, which the monsters eventually embrace. The discovery later in the film that laughter is more powerful than scares reinforces this message about standing up to your fears and overcoming them. It also ties in with one of PIXAR's overarching themes, namely coming to terms with the people we love growing up.
There is also a neat little role reversal in the film regarding the choice of monsters. The employees at Monsters, Inc. are assigned to a specific child to extract the most possible scares out of a given subject. Rather than the children creating the monsters, as manifestations of their fears and uncertainties, the monsters are tailored for them in the hope that their fears might manifest themselves. This approach within the fictional universe is complimentary with PIXAR's notions of creativity: their films have broad appeal but they are built around emotions and feelings that children will respond to, rather than asking them to respond to something they know nothing about.
On an entirely different level, Monsters, Inc. is also a film about good business practices. The prosperity of the company is directly in proportion to the quality of life enjoyed by its employees. At the start of the film, everyone is working flat out to avert an energy crisis and the management keep complaining when anyone falls short. They even resort to underhand tactics to achieve their goal, rather than thinking the problem through with their employees at the heart. In contrast, Sully's management decisions, from the new energy source to the brighter colours in the workplace, make dealing with the daily grind a lot more fun.
There are a lot of wonderful touches to the visual world of Monsters, Inc. which reinforce the business angle to it. Mike and Sully's world has a lot of blue-collar qualities, from the helmets to the metal lunchboxes, but unlike The Incredibles, it doesn't feel like these adult characteristics are being forced upon a younger audience. The paperwork conversations are structured much better and take up less time than the insurance conversations in Brad Bird's film: not only are they shorter but they are not an integral part of the story. We get a sense of how Monsters, Inc. works as a company without Pete Docter having to labour over details at the expense of his characters.
While Docter needn't labour in his storytelling, there are a number of nice references to monster movies buried in Monsters, Inc., reinforcing our impression of PIXAR as a thorough team who are passionate and well-researched. The restaurant at which Mike and Celia eat is called Harryhausen's, after Ray Harryhausen, the great stop-motion animator and special effects pioneer. Celia's hair is reminiscent of the Gorgons in the Greek Myths, in which Harryhausen dabbled at the peak of his career. There are also several little nods to other PIXAR works in Sully's last scene with Boo: she hands him a Jesse doll from Toy Story 2, the ball from the PIXAR logo and a clown fish (Finding Nemo was in production at this time).
Even if you don't pick up on all the film's deeper themes or references to other works, Monsters, Inc. is still a great piece of storytelling and a really funny family comedy. While Mike and Sully haven't become quite as indelible as Woody and Buzz, they still make a great double act with believable characterisations and great physicality. John Goodman's lugubrious delivery is beautifully balanced out by Billy Crystal's fast-paced dialogue, and unlike many Dreamworks productions it feels like the famous faces are playing characters rather than just letting loose with their own distinctive shtick.
Alongside the main pairing, there are a number of really good performances in the supporting cast. Jennifer Tilly is very good as Celia, her gravelly voice capturing the harsher side of the character while being suitably smitten with her "googly bear". Steve Buscemi is well-cast as the villainous Randall, with the role playing to the same slippery, scheming quality that he brought to Fargo or Reservoir Dogs. James Coburn, in his final performance, balances the mentor-like role he has to Sully with all the ruthlessness and frustration surrounding his position. Best of all, however, is Mary Gibbs, who is simply adorable as Boo. Gibbs was only two-and-a-half she was cast, and was so restless that the recording staff had to follow her around with a microphone.
Most of the humour in Monsters, Inc. is visual, but it's superbly timed and really quite inventive. The scenes involving the CDA are wonderfully over-the-top, parodying any number of scenes in thrillers where a SWAT team must invade a building and remove a threat. Many of the best gags are throwaways, like the jelly-like monster slipping through the grating in the street, or Randall's multiple colour-changes when Boo is bashing him over the head. There's also some good dry humour between Roz and Mike regarding his paperwork, and when Crystal is required to improvise, it's a lot funnier than his stuff in The Princess Bride.
While Monsters, Inc. isn't primarily an action film, it does have several good set-pieces which will keep children entertained. The door chase sequence is to some extent a one-upping of the luggage chase at the end of Toy Story 2, but it's still executed in a very neat way with good editing. Similarly the scenes with the Abominable Snowman (voiced by Toy Story alumnus John Ratzenberger) results in a decent slice of action with a solid punchline. Neither of these scenes are particularly ground-breaking, but they do punctuate the slower, sadder moments.
Monsters, Inc. is also noteworthy for the visual leaps it made, for CG animation in general and for PIXAR'S aesthetic in particular. The film utilised a new animation programme called Fitz to accurately produce the appearance and movements of Sully's hair, including the correct amounts of shadowing on different parts of his fur. Without these innovations, Docter's subsequent film Up would not have looked half as inviting. Ironically, the title sequence feels like a product of 1960s Disney, being reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians in both its pacing and design.
Monsters, Inc. is a great and funny family comedy which still holds up really well after both 12 years and its recent prequel. While its technical innovations can be marvelled at in hindsight, its real achievements lie in its beautifully crafted story, great characters, memorable performances and the nuanced ideas that these raise together. While it's not quite up to the high standard of Toy Story 2 or Finding Nemo, it remains one of PIXAR's finest achievements.


Click here to read Pete Docter's advice for young animators, courtesy of Letters of Note.

NEXT REVIEW: Trance (2013)