Directed By: Pete Doctor
Starring: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn and Jennifer Tully
Screenplay By: Andrew Stanton and Dan Gerson
Original Release: November 2, 2001
What lurks in our closet, scratching and howling in the night? What horrible beasty lies waiting for us to open the door and grab us up in the night? Well, apparently we have nothing to fear, because that monster we are so afraid of is simply doing their normal 9 to 5. Monsters, Inc. is the charming and adorable story of Monsters trying to scare children in order to power their world. There’s a lot of great stuff to talk about here. From great characters to great villains to a buddy film unlike any other. And somehow, amidst all that, Monsters, Inc. manages to subtly push a political agenda. It might just be the first Pixar film to do so. So come along dear friends and kindly “Put that thing back where it came from, or so help me!”
As with most of the films we talk about here, there is a lot of history to this one, but for me, the most fascinating bits are where the story began compared to where it eventually ended up. Originally, Monsters, Inc. was the story of a 30 year old man. Chased and hounded by monsters as a child, his monsters were once again starting to show up in his life and were causing him a lot of stress. Each monster would represent one of his fears and only by conquering these fears would he be able to stop the spread of monsters in his world. This story, while sounding awesome, was never meant to be and was dropped fairly quickly. Eventually the story would shift to one about Johnson, a monster who was up and coming at his place of work, where scaring children was the business, and child, who had yet to be named or gendered. This stage of the script was simply called Monsters.
Yet when we think of this film as a buddy comedy, we aren’t thinking of Boo as the buddy. An idea was thrown around in 1998 at a story story summit to include a sidekick type character to Sully and a one eyed monster was drawn up. The character was named Mike after Frank Oz’s, the puppeteer behind Fozzy Bear and Yoda, father. A single sketch was put together of Mike helping Sulley pick out a tie for work and before long, he was a central character to the story. Watching Monsters, Inc. now, it’s hard to imagine a time where Mike was not part of the story.
The real core of this story is the friendship between Mike and Sulley. These two are thick as thieves and always have each other’s back. What makes the Boo crisis so good isn’t really Boo herself or the mass hysteria but the idea that this one thing can test a friendship so much. It’s quite effective in telling a story of two guys that are like brothers. The two of them also help to represent an age old question of whether to do what’s right, even though everyone else goes against it, or to maintain the status quo because it’s easy. While Mike is not a fan of helping Boo, I like that he actually is a character that often sees the bright side. He isn’t this cold calloused hater of all things. In fact, he quite likes his life and that’s why he’s so afraid of change. He has a great job and a great girlfriend and even when his face gets covered up in his television debut, he still manages to find the good in things.
Sulley is the all around good guy here and there is something magical about watching his relationship form with Boo. From being terrified of her, to feeling sadness at leaving her, watching their relationship flourish out of Sulley’s realization that things aren’t always as they seem is truly special. And it helps that Boo is flat out adorable. It also helped that Mary Gibbs, an actual youngster, voiced Boo and gave her the real presence of an innocent child. What’s even better is watching Boo slowly grow up a little and through all of this madness, she finds the strength to be unafraid of Randall, her monster.
Randall is a fantastic villain. For starters, he’s super creepy and his camouflage act helps add to the suspense that he could be anywhere at any time. He also is fueled by jealousy which is great and all, but we get so much of the underlying causes of this. I love watching Waternoose tell him that Sulley is twice the scarer that Randall will ever be. It gives this great history for this character and really makes us understand his hatred for Sulley. The best part of Randall is that we really want to sympathize with him. We’ve all been in his shoes. We’ve all had someone that was better at something than us and it drove us a little crazy. The trouble is that Randall is just such a jerk that at the end of the day, we simply can’t take his side.
Something that is very admirable in this film is the creation of this world. It’s on par with Zootopia in the way that things just work so well together. Everything makes sense. From the idea that monsters in our world were banished from theirs to the entire reason they scare us in the first place. These characters are fun and interesting mainly because their world works and makes so much sense. It’s one of those films that makes you think, “Wow, no one else came up with this earlier?” And that’s how it should be. It’s so fun to go to a living breathing world of monsters where human children are toxic and everyone is just trying to live their lives free of fear.
I think the thing that strikes me the most about this film is the political backstory that sneaks through the cracks every once in a while. In a way, this film is about the energy crisis and how using crude oils, otherwise known as children’s screams, is bad and not as effective when in reality there are much better forms of energy. It really is interesting to view the film as an adult and notice these little things. Everything from political corruption to the workers suddenly realizing they are on the wrong side is here. It’s an interesting play on a very relevant issue.
Yet take that away and there is something very comforting about the idea that a laugh is more powerful than a scream. I think that more than anything that is what should be taken away from Monsters, Inc. Happiness and joy always trump our fears. Finding ways to smile even when a terrifying monster is attacking you is the only way to overcome the fear and be able to fight back. Children and parents alike can learn something from that. Our fears only define us and our weaknesses if we allow them to.
At the end of the day, Monsters, Inc. is quite hilarious and charming. Yet peel that back and you’ll find a film with a lot of depth and meaning. The characters are hilarious and the world is brilliantly imagined. The film tackles everything from dealing with fear to how we perceive the energy crisis in the world to just how far we’ll go to feel better than the person we’re jealous of. Monsters, Inc. is a buddy comedy at its finest. Mike and Sulley are strongest as a team and through being pushed to their limit they learn to work together even better than before. While friendship has been prevalent in Pixar so far, it’s great to see that it feels neither old nor rehashed her. Monsters, Inc. is a fine addition to the Pixar canon and it’s jazzy, quirky canon sets it apart and raises the bar once again.
Next Up: Finding Nemo