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Monsters, Inc.

Director: Pete Docter, David Silverman, Lee Unkrich
Cast: Voices of John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Mary Gibbs

(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 2 Nov 2001; 2001)

The opening credits sequence of Monsters, Inc. is so pretty. I love it. I want to paint my house like it. I want to enter this imaginative, vibrant, childlike universe—Sesame Street and Disney’s The Aristocats (1970), and Pee Wee’s Playhouse all in one. The colors of the moving trapezoids and squares (all doors opening and closing, closet doors, to be exact) are rich but not overwhelming.


The movie is all about doors, leading in and out of childhood memories, adventures, and fears. Monsters, Inc. bolsters its nostalgia for childhood with a fun story and funky visuals. The technical aspects are wondrous: blue monster fur blowing in the snowy wind of the Himalayas is a sight to behold. And for all the film’s obvious unreality, the characters seem distinctly human—especially the monsters—and the story is simple and compelling. The film doesn’t try to provide a sophisticated explanation for the existence of monsters who dwell on an alternate plane, behind kids’ closet doors, in a city called Monstropolis. It’s enough for viewers of all ages to know that the monsters are there, that they have access to our bedrooms, and, ultimately, that they’re not all as evil as they might seem in the dark of the night, much like the faceless corporation they work for.


If Monsters, Inc. is about the impending loss of childish innocence and the rapidity with which this seems to happen these days, it is also about the potential goodness of corporations, like Pixar or its overlord Disney, or like the one that runs Monstropolis, if only they can find the right leader. So maybe I should stop worrying about what might happen when Disney takes over the world, if it hasn’t already, because Michael Eisner and friends are actually quite benevolent and their Disney represents a kinder, gentler incarnation of corporate domination.


Monsters, Inc. is primarily the story of James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), scary monster extraordinaire (he holds the record for the most screams, which provide the city with its energy source), and Boo (Mary Gibbs), the little girl human who is a fugitive in Monstropolis. Boo doesn’t really talk, but she does babble. She endearingly calls Sulley “Kitty” and gamely tells him she’s not afraid of him at all—at least until she sees him on the job, frightening the daylights out of some other poor kid. Sulley himself doesn’t realize the level to which he terrorizes youngsters; he’s just doing his job, just following orders, being all that he can be, and all that corporate (or is it military) training nonsense. The moment when he realizes that terror is not all fun and games is the film’s central agon. It is only when he sees himself on screen that he begins to question his role in scream-gathering, and the necessity of scream-gathering overall.


This question of the use-value of labor (or its moral and ethical complications) is perhaps the film’s most direct social critique. This is further in that the citizens of Monstropolis are very much like folks in our own world in their work habits. At the corporation, “Monsters, Inc.,” energy is collected from the fear created in human children. Monstropolis is like an old company town, where one large corporation dictates commerce, lifestyle, and government, and its head, Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), is like a turn-of-the-century American corporate mogul, complete with waistcoat, cigar, and patronizing attitude. At Monsters, Inc. the mid-level workers seem to lead a rather humdrum existence of administration, planning, and prep work. Then, there’s the talent, a hybrid of upper-level management and professional sports players: the actual scarers. Imagine a room full of kindly, furry, and scary when needed, Michael Jordans: these are the big hero monsters who enter children’s rooms to ensure that a big scream (and thus its energy) can be collected by their assistants—the lowest “assembly line” workers on the totem pole.


“The window of innocence is shrinking,” explains one character, and this is leading to an energy shortage: kids just don’t get scared like they used to. On one level, we can see in Monstropolis’s energy crisis our own contemporary conundrums over renewable energy sources, an increased need for energy, the fear of the loss of fossil fuel energy, and the dangers of nuclear energy. On another level, the toxicity of human children (the monsters are warned never to touch them or anything belonging to them), and the fear of workers’ exposure to this danger indexes our own fears of environmental decay, and any number of technological, biological and chemical disaster paranoias. Even something as seemingly innocent as a tiny toddler’s sock sticking to the back of one monster after a scaring session is a crisis of monumental proportions at the Monsters, Inc. factory. The decontamination scenes that follow invite nervous laughter, given recent anthrax scares. It seems so silly when the monsters go to the lengths they do to destroy the sock—or at least it would if people here on non-Pixar earth were not actually being harmed and killed by random acts of bio-terrorism. It’s not that this is at all funny; it just brings home the idea that life in this monster city is very much like our own these days, with the fear of children being replaced in our world by the fear of certain ethnicities.


The film does try to imbue some multi-culti respect though: there is more than one kind of monster, and mostly, they all “get along.” There are sort of humanoid monsters—Sulley, for example, and the amiable Abominable Snowman (John Ratzenberger). There are green-skinned one-eyes, like Sulley’s roommate and co-worker, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Mike’s girlfriend Celia (Jennifer Tilly), who, despite their oddities, still walk upright on (usually) two legs like “everyone else.” The villains, however, are decidedly less human, and often many-legged insect or reptile monsters—which again might recall the way certain international “others” are referred to by George W. as “The Evil One” and are characterized as very much less than human.


The film’s multicultural stylings are a bit undone, however, by the fact that all the monsters are very obviously, and “traditionally” gendered. Tilly’s trademark breathy voice as Celia and the fact that the character only wears short skirts indicate she’s quite a girlie girl. But perhaps she’s a bit more “subversive” than I initially give her credit for: her Medusa-inspired tresses should inspire the jealousy of alternative hair aficionados such as Gwen Stefani and Dennis Rodman. And yet, Monsters, Inc. is actually a bit more complicated in its gender politics than Celia’s representation might suggest. While the plot is mostly centered on Sulley and Boo, Monsters, Inc. is also a buddy movie in which there is lots of love between Sulley and Mike, though the latter is plainly smitten with Celia. So while he spends most of his time and emotional energy caring about Sulley, it’s not because he’s gay. No way.


Sulley, on the other hand, has no greater love than his work, and that’s presumably manly enough to forestall questions about his relationship to Mike. At the same time, Sulley is more than just muscle—he is thoughtful and caring, and really quite talented as a scary monster, despite his adorable fluffiness—all of which might complicate his traditional manliness. Sulley is clearly the top, the one in control. But he is also the one who is open to new ideas about himself as well as about the basic assumptions (and traditional, conservative logics) of Monstropolis. In the end, Sulley and his monstrous friends offer an important lesson for kids (and some scaredy-cat adults)—that there is no need to be afraid of the monster who hangs out under the bed, or in the closet.

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