Annabel, British-book-blogging celebrity and webmistress of Shiny New Books, commissioned a review of Monsters, Inc. (2001) last week. This was an utter delight, as it was one of the handful of VHSs my brother and I had as kids and rewatched fairly obsessively, but I hadn’t seen it for over a decade, and it’s a wonderful world to re-enter.
The reason Pixar is so successful—I have theorized—is because every one of their films turns on a premise that is so simple you could summarize it in a sentence, and every one of those premises is simply a flipping or inversion of a situation we (the audience) are intimately familiar with, or encounter daily. The Incredibles: what if two suburban parents having mid-life crises were literally superheroes? Ratatouille: what if the creature most horrifying to find in a kitchen was a really talented cook? Monsters, Inc: what if they’re more scared of the kids than the kids are of them? The exotic and the quotidian don’t just shake hands; they change places. In the case of Monsters, Inc., this means we get to delight in sequences like Mike and Sulley’s walk to work: waving to the neighbourhood kids (who are jumping rope using the enormous sticky tongue of one of them), encountering a co-worker at the pedestrian crossing (albeit a co-worker who’s several storeys tall and of whom we only ever see a single scaly leg), talking about the day’s headlines (an energy crisis engulfing Monstropolis, which of course is the hinge of the plot).
The main characters are a huge part of Monsters, Inc.‘s brilliance. Sulley and Mike’s locker room banter is delightful: Sulley as celebrity wrestler, Mike as hype man. The fact that John Goodman’s and Billy Crystal’s voices so perfectly suit their characters’ physicality and personalities is the icing on the cake; we believe their friendship, we can see right from the start that Mike has always been the sidekick, and we can understand his frustration later when Sulley seems perfectly happy to throw away everything they’ve devoted their lives to. Villainous Randall, who’s voiced by Steve Buscemi, is genuinely scary: his plot to forcibly extract screams from abducted children is one of the more sinister concepts Pixar’s ever introduced, and his character design—sinuous, reptilian, sneering—matches. (I also love virtually all of his dialogues with other characters. He’s much wittier than our heroes, for all that he’s a jerk, and “Shh shh shh, ya hear that? It’s the winds… of change” makes me laugh every time.) The female characters, of course, are still one-dimensional; there are only two of them, beautiful airhead Celia and repulsive late-middle-aged cardigan-wearing Roz, which is an unfortunate reflection of how we still generally seem to feel about women (and, clearly, how we felt about them in 2001). The fact that Roz turns out to be the undercover head of the Child Detection Agency is clever, but doesn’t necessarily make up for anything.
The film’s visuals are its other main strength. It was made at a time when computer-generated animation was just about to really take off, and the way that cloth, fur and hair is rendered here is noticeably more realistic than in earlier movies. (Look at any scene with Sulley in it, for example.) Just as impressive as the more photographic look is the sheer quantity of creative energy on display: every crowd scene in Monstropolis contains bystanders, all of whom had to be invented, drawn and animated. The ensemble shots of scarers entering the scare floor are among my favourites for this: a tall blue monster unsheathing his claws and growling, a short red monster having his enormous sharp teeth brushed, poor hapless orange-and-yellow George! The best sequences, of course, are those in the door vault; I vividly remember seeing those for the first time and being completely blown away by them, and the scenes haven’t lost anything with age. Watching Mike and Sulley sneaking Boo in and out of various childrens’ rooms across the globe, followed closely by Randall—one minute we’re in a wood-fire-lit room in Scandinavia; the next, there’s a curlicue balcony and a window view of the Eiffel Tower—is one of Monsters, Inc.’s greatest joys.
This sentence, however, brings me to Boo, whom I have no memory of disliking as a child but who, upon rewatching, strikes me as one of the oddest, most obnoxious versions of childhood ever animated. It’s hard to tell how old she’s meant to be. Maybe two or three? She can walk on her own, has object permanence and some gross motor skills, and experiences mood swings the way a toddler ought to. And yet for some reason she can barely talk. The only comprehensible words she ever says are “Mike Wazowski” and “kitty”; the rest of her vocalizations are (very high-pitched) shrieks and giggles. It’s as though she’s a sort of Platonic ideal of toddlerdom: the animators and scriptwriters seem to have created her character around a core of what we generally accept to be “cute” behaviour in children, but it feels curiously unreal. More concerningly, it had precisely the opposite effect to the one presumably intended: instead of finding Boo adorable, I cordially hated her. During the scene where Sulley “roars” and scares her—which is meant to tug at our heartstrings! We ought to feel protective of her!—I found myself thinking yes, bitch, cry. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m a psychopath, of course. But surely with a character whose creators are so clearly reaching for a certain reaction from an audience, the failure to elicit that reaction on any level is a problem.
I don’t think Monsters, Inc. is one of Pixar’s best films, honestly, but I think at the time it came out, it probably was. (It was the second of their movies to get an A+ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, after Toy Story 2.) Its emotional engagement is fairly superficial, and the comedy is pretty broad. But it’s still astonishingly creative—like watching fireworks in someone’s brain—and the ending is sweet. Definitely worth revisiting.