[11 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By the fourth film in their then fledgling catalog, Pixar was at a crossroads. They had seen Toy Story make money hand over fist, becoming a recognized commercial and critical hit. They were honored with an Oscar, and almost immediately, every studio that could foot the bill began trading in their pen and ink efforts for the new frontier of CG animation. It took three years before their next project - A Bug’s Life - hit theaters, and the response wasn’t as resounding. While still successful, it wasn’t seen as some great leap forward for the company. Things got even worse when it was rumored that Disney, then distributor of the production house’s product, was seriously considering releasing Toy Story 2 as a direct to video title (never a good sign). Even when it eventually arrived in theaters to even greater public and pundit appreciation, it looked like Pixar had a lot to prove with its next release - Monsters, Inc.
Naturally, they rose to the challenge. Utilizing advances in technology that allowed for more detailed and accurate character mapping (including the latest tweak - lifelike fur!) and the potent imagination of directors Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and David Silverman, the company took a massive leap of originality toward the sense of cartoon classicism they eagerly carry today. Looking over the new Blu-ray release of the title, including dozens of in-depth making-of featurettes and commentaries - we begin to see the reasons behind Pixar’s consistency. As filmmakers known for their vision and attention to onscreen spectacle, there is a real reliance on the trademarks of bravura cinema - character, story, performance, and the well combined coalescing of said facets. Like other titles in their canon, the final version of Monsters, Inc. is as much about what’s included in the story as what was purposefully left out.
Would it surprise you that Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski was not part of the original plan? Or that Boo might have been nothing more than a throwaway cameo. These were just a few of the humble (and frankly half-baked) beginnings to what would eventually become one of Pixar’s most powerful films about the loss of innocence and the specialness of childhood. The narrative revolves around furry beast James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) who is the Number One “scarer” at the title company - a place that collects child’s screams as a means of energy for the otherworldy realm of Monstropolis. Assisted by best buddy Mike, he is adored by big boss Mr. Waternoose (James Coburn), and hated by arch rival Randall (Steve Buscemi). They achieve their daily quota of fear by transporting through children’s closets, collecting their shrieks in ready to use fuel cells.
One night, while helping out his friend, Sully stumbles across Randall illegally accessing one of these doorways. When he investigates, he accidentally brings back a female human toddler whom he nicknames ‘Boo’. Children are considered poisonous in Monstropolis, and just having contact with one is a crime. So Sully seeks Mike’s help, and together they resolve to return Boo to her home. What they don’t realize, of course, is that Randall wasn’t working alone and the secret project he is part of may mean the end of Monsters, Inc. forever. In between, we learn about the everyday existence of our pre-adolescent nightmare fodder, as well as how laughter could be a better substitute than any continuous conspiracy of fear.
With its buddy comedy comfort levels and undeniable talented cast, Monsters, Inc. wouldn’t have to be a wild-eyed wonder to work. We’d laugh out loud as Crystal and Goodman exchange barbs, snicker as little Boo causes nothing but chaos for supposed experts at scary, and marvel at how the old growing pain of being afraid of the shadows in your closet is transformed into this terrific entertainment. Had they just stopped there, had Docter and the gang done the same thing for the fanged and the clawed as Pixar in general did for various playroom amusements, we’d have a clever almost-classic. Kids would marvel at the whole humans vs. monsters dynamic and never once question the heart and the heroism of all the major players involved - Mike, Sully, and cute little Boo.
But there is more to the movie than this - much, much more! From a warehouse holding every doorway between the real world and the monster world to a rousing rollercoaster ride on same, the level of creativity and invention inherent in Monsters, Inc. makes other examples of computer animated genre pale in comparison. It’s not just rampant eye candy and ADD-inspired flash. No, Pixar is one of the few film houses that meticulously re-imagine their ideas, working them over and over and over until they are as polished and near perfect as possible. So the epic elements utilized, the sequences that illustrate scope and innovation all work together in logistical lockstep seamlessness. Each piece falls into place with the others, creating a patchwork of artistic triumph that is hard to beat. Even in their later efforts when divergent ideas - lovesick robot, a post-apocalyptic Earth - seem at practical loggerheads with each other, Pixar finds a way to make them work - and Monsters, Inc. was the first time we saw it so blatantly.
Thankfully, the blu-ray bonus features shed new light on the process. We hear about story meetings and grueling “brainstorming” exercises. We see rejected ideas and almost completed casualties. We hear from the members of the team, each one feeling empowered to guide the project in the direction they feel would be best, and we see their results revisited and reexamined, arguments for and against said aesthetic connections being reinforced and redefined. And all the while, the movie continues to speak the loudest. Monsters, Inc. is the kind of motion picture magician that still amazed you several years later, even when you’ve learned all its best tricks by heart. Here, the prestidigitation is as powerful and pleasing as it ever was (especially in 1080p High Definition).
Of course, the next great step in the company’s creative progression would come with the follow-up film, Finding Nemo. There, Pixar managed the near impossible - the film became everything to everyone: young, old, cynical, and naïve. Yet within the often unforgettable elements of Monsters, Inc. was the foundation for such future mass acceptance. Today, CG settles, using cheap gimmicks and stale clichés to make up for a clear lack of creative mantle. Such a substance it definitely not lacking in Pixar’s fourth film. More than anything else, Monsters, Inc. was the confirmation of what the previous three efforts promised - that this company would be front and center of the computer animation boom for years to come. Thankfully, that motion picture prophecy did indeed come true.