Monsters, Inc. rivals the Toy Story movies for sheer magic, the Wallace and Gromit shorts for constant astonishing inventiveness, and The Nightmare Before Christmas for whimsical creature design (without Nightmare’s macabre). It outdoes A Bug’s Life for Pixar magic and outdoes Chicken Run (from Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Parks) for zany invention. It may or may not outdo DreamWorks’ smash hit Shrek at the box office, but it’s a superior movie, one that kids will like better and many adults will as well. Monsters, Inc. triumphantly reconfirms the geniuses at Pixar as the 800-pound gorillas of modern animation and the reigning kings of family entertainment.
Like the Toy Story films, Monsters begins with a child’s imaginative perspective on the world and then proceeds to extrapolate a world underlying childlike imaginings. But whereas Toy Story simply brought toys to life with very much the sort of personalities we imagined they would have, the nighttime closet and under-bed monsters in Monsters, Inc. turn out to be wholly different from what we feared: not frightful or harmful terrors out to get us, but only hard-working Joes trying to make a living. In fact, it turns out that the monsters are as scared of us as we are of them.
Because of this central conceit, the world of Monsters, Inc. is a more artificial and contrived affair than the Toy Story world, and something of the figure of the Monster in myth and fairy tale and imagination has been lost. Yet there’s also a slyly satiric point: Childhood fears aren’t what they used to be. Kids today tend to be more sophisticated, less easy to scare than their predecessors. In fact, bedroom fear levels have dropped so much that Monstropolis (which we learn is literally powered with screams elicited by the professional scarers of Monsters, Inc.) is facing an energy crisis.
Monsters, Inc. begins with a few standard-issue story elements — an odd-couple pair of heroes, one lumbering and easygoing (Sully, voiced by John Goodman and looking like a hefty polyester Wookie) and the other diminutive and wisecracking (Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal and looking like that grinning ball thing on the Doug Adams Hitchhiker books plus legs and a giant eye); a rivalry between the heroes and a nasty coworker (Randall, voiced by Steve Buscemi, a cross between a bug and a lizard with Predator-like powers of invisibility) who turns out to have a sinister agenda; and a "Ransom of Red Chief" scenario in which a "kidnapped" child turns out to be too much for the "kidnappers" to handle — and reworks them, with considerable wit and charm, into something fresh and new.
A good bit of the charm is due to little Mary Gibbs, the young girl who voices the toddler-babble of the human child in Monsterland. It’s rare these days for an animated child character to be voiced by an actual child — though it was standard practice in Disney’s heyday — and the genuineness of this little girl’s squeals and exclamations remind us what’s been missing.
Virtually every scene in Monsters, Inc. is crammed with witty details and clever inventions. The bit with the monsters getting ready for scaring duty contains some literally eye-popping insights into their techniques; and Mike’s girlfriend Celia (Jennifer Tilly) has a Medusa head of snakes that act as mirrors of her own emotions, rattling when she’s angry and kissing Mike when Celia kisses him.
Leading up to the dramatic climax is a unforgettable set piece that takes the great luggage-room chase sequence at the end of Toy Story 2 to an entirely new level. This dazzling scene was not unreasonably described by Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News as "like something evolved from the collective twisted psyches of Max Fleischer’s animators, Salvador Dali and M. C. Escher, but with the energy and creativity of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett."
Like Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. is a breezy, fast-paced adventure story, with the emphasis on fun and excitement rather than on character development (though Toy Story 2 had the advantage of an established cast of well-developed characters from the earlier film.) Still, over the course of the film the characters and their feelings do become quite real. By the time we get to the final seconds of the film, the closing image has as much emotional resonance and poignancy as anything in the Toy Story films. Monsters, Inc. is a gem, the first must-see family film since Spy Kids.
There is now no reason to get any other edition of Monsters, Inc. than the Blu-ray set, which includes the film on standard DVD for those still waiting to upgrade to Blu-ray. Lavish bonus features include: commentary by directors Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich, writer Andrew Stanton, and executive producer John Lasseter; a retrospective filmmakers round-table on the development of the film; a number of pre-production story featurettes (“Story is King,” “Monsters Are Real,” “Original Treatent,” “Back to Work” a storyboard-to-film comparison and a collection of abandoned scenes; a six-segment featurette on Pixar animation; a couple of extras on the production design of the film (“Designing Monstropolis,” “Set Dressing”), a tour of some of the film’s virtual locations; a pair of extras on the film’s sound design and theme song; and more.
Is it “okay to be okay” if you’re Pixar? Monsters University: : my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
Monsters University, from first-time director Dan Scanlon, is a charming, well-crafted trifle — at least until the subversive last act, when it sets its sights a bit higher.
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I enjoy watching Monsters, Inc. over and over, not just because it’s hilarious (especially Mike disinfecting his eye and many other bits), but because I think this film is ultimately about turning the tables on adults who call children “monsters.” This film is about our society’s fear of children.
I think that’s the real point of the CDA and all the other paranoia of the monster world regarding kids, but also the point of Sully’s scaring of Boo near the end of the film. Monsters, Inc. is about reminding us who the real monsters are. By portraying the adults as monsters externally, the filmakers did not need to make them act like monsters (at least not all of them).
Our world is frightened to death of children, especially if they act like children. That’s the main reason why Boo is so wonderful in this film. She’s a real kid, (so to speak) not a 50-year old comedian in a kid suit.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s right on target. Hopefully it will not be an epitaph for our culture.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.