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What's the big deal?
Monsters, Inc. is an animated family comedy film released in 2001 and was the fourth CG animation produced by Pixar Studios. Directed by Pete Docter in his directorial debut, the film is set is a world where monsters generate power for their community via the screams of children spooked by the employees of the titular factory. However, when a child follows top employee Sulley back through their magical door, chaos erupts as Sully and his best friend Mike attempt to get her back to the safety of her bedroom. The film stars the vocal talents of John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly and young Mary Gibbs, the daughter of animator Rob Gibbs. The film took five years to develop including new ways of animating cloth and fur but the results were definitely worth it. Released to critical acclaim, the film was one of the biggest hits of the year with global takings of $557 million and walked away with an Academy Award. It would be followed by a prequel in 2013 called Monsters University and a TV spin-off in 2021.
What's it about?
The city of Monstropolis is supplied with energy generated at Monsters, Incorporated which is able to send monsters through a portal to the bedrooms of children in our world where they make children scream - which powers the city. Although the monsters believe that children are dangerous and even toxic, the power plant has been successful for some time. But despite the efforts of top scarer James 'Sulley' Sullivan and his floor manager and best friend Mike Wazowski, power production has begun to decline as children are scaring less easily. Company CEO Henry J. Waternoose III is determined to find a way of turning things around while Sulley has to contend with rival scarer Randall Boggs attempting to usurp his position as the company's best scarer.
One evening, Sulley discovers an open door to the bedroom of a small girl and unwittingly lets her through. Initially frightened of her, Sulley soon realises that children aren't deadly to the touch but fails to escort her back. Before long, the toddler escapes the factory and chaos ensues as she creates havoc wherever she wanders. Sulley and Mike have to work together to keep her safe from the terrified inhabitants of Monstropolis while Randall realises that this could be his opportunity to put Sulley in his place.
What's to like?
At the time, the film was the first real indication that Pixar weren't just going to follow the herd when it came to animation. The concept is brilliantly 'out-there', a genuinely original setting packed with imagination and an alternative visual style that demonstrates the studio's ability to conjure up unique ideas that would become clearer thanks to films like Up and WALL-E. It was also the most technically advanced film Pixar had released up to that point and even today, twenty years later, the furry Sulley is still one of the most impressive characters they have ever done. Despite the monstrous visage, Sulley is as warm and fuzzy as his blue hide - in no small part to Goodman's excellent vocal performance as well.
In fact, this is probably one of the best cast films Pixar have ever done. Goodman and Crystal aren't just a great combination but somehow seem to fit their characters as well, as if the look of their monsters were designed to suit the performance (which is entirely possibly, of course). Buscemi has always sounded like a villainous reptile (no offence intended) and is equally effective as the film's antagonist. But personally, the film comes alive whenever Boo is on the screen. Wonderfully voiced by the toddler daughter of one of the animators, she is a bundle of sheer joy from start to finish - unpredictable, impossibly cute and still playing a pivotal role in the film despite barely speaking English.
What I found most impressive is the film's ambition - this is not really a world we should understand with its mysterious portals, assorted monsters of every shape and colour and unusual requirements for our fear to provide power. But we soon get on board with the concept and it takes us on an incredible journey with some astounding sequences that dazzle with their conception. Take the moment when Sulley is clutching onto a door as it rattles its way around the factory among thousands of other doors simultaneously. This looks and feels like a quantum leap forward compared to the first Toy Story released just six years earlier, so much so that Toy Story feels more like a proof-of-concept for feature-length CG films and this is the sort of thing Pixar dreamed of doing all along.
- Pixar provided a unique trailer for the film that would be shown in theatres before Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. Mike and Sulley are shown playing charades in their apartment and Mike repeatedly fails to guess Sulley acting out Harry Potter. After Sulley puts on a pair of glasses, sits on a broomstick with an owl and sticks a paper lightning bolt to his head, Mike guesses The Sound Of Music before finally promoting Monsters, Inc.
- The restaurant where Mike and his date Celia dine is called Harryhausen's, a tribute to legendary special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen who created stop-motion animation for films like It Came From Beneath The Sea and Jason And The Argonauts.
- Randy Newman finally won the Best Original Song Oscar after sixteen previous nominations for the song "If I Didn't Have You". He was nominated for arguably his best known Pixar song, "You've Got A Friend In Me" from Toy Story, but lost out to Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and their song from Disney's Pocahontas, "Colors Of The Wind".
- This is, to date, the only Pixar film released where Luxo Jr (the lamp that jumps on the 'i' in Pixar during the introduction sequence) is already stood on the letter. He simply turns to the audience and leaves his light on.
What's not to like?
On the surface, very little. The film feels unique compared to many other CG animations, there is plenty to amuse children and adults and it looks the business. But for whatever reason, I didn't enjoy it as much as WALL-E or The Incredibles which are my two favourite Pixar films to date. The concept might be a bit too niche for younger viewers to comprehend and some of the monsters - like Randall - may be a bit too frightening for them as well. I also didn't find the story particularly strong which seems to descend into very pretty but repetitive action scenes that didn't feel as if they fuelled the narrative very much.
Am I being a bit too pernickety with Monsters, Inc.? Possibly - but the reason I have such high standards for them (and therefore, you should too) is because for a long time, they kept exceeding them. This film certainly isn't a disappointment by any means but I feel it lacks that something that pushes it into greatness. There isn't a stand-out moment you can recall afterwards that sticks in your memory unlike my favourite Pixar films which often have plenty. Monsters, Inc. is very good and miles better than other CG films from the time but what it lacks in narrative strength, it makes up for with charm and warmth.
Should I watch it?
Monsters, Inc. is a fantastic family movie that underlines Pixar's dominance of CG animation in the early days as well as being a fun and entertaining ride. It's imaginative and alternative, offering a unique perspective on the lives of the beasts under your bed or in your closet. This is Pixar at their best, offering something different from the norm but still able to bring joy to children and most adults with remarkable ease.
Great For: family film nights, film nerds like me, anyone worried about a film featuring monsters - they're not that scary...
Not So Great For: date nights, other animation studios, the very easily spooked
What else should I watch?
Pixar had the most explosive of debuts when Toy Story pioneered the feature-length CG animation in 1995 and enjoyed many subsequent years of success. They are undoubtedly the studio to beat for others in the market, able to produce films of genuine beauty and imagination as well as child-friendly blockbusters that allow parent company Disney all the merchandising ideas they could ever want. Their next film, Finding Nemo, was another smash hit and one that also led to a belated sequel - Finding Dory followed in 2016. Speaking of which, Monsters University followed in 2013 and while it wasn't universally loved by critics, it made even more money at the box office (a staggering $743 million).
Ironically, the wheels came off for Pixar with the release of Cars 2 which was an unnecessary and unfulfilling sequel aimed squarely at the youngest of audiences and was ultimately little more than an extended advert for the toys. The Good Dinosaur was a rare misfire from the studio, Brave was good but not great and the recent Onward suffered financial misfortune after being affected by the global pandemic. Their most recent release, the spin-off Lightyear, divided critics and bombed at the box office but people shouldn't write Pixar off just yet. They are still capable of surprising and delighting audiences (Soul and Inside Out are well worth watching) and for me, they still remain the benchmark for the others to strive for.
The Abominable Snowman
Andrew Stanton & Daniel Gerson**
Release Date (UK)
17th November, 2001
Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family
Best Original Song
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Animated Feature
© 2022 Benjamin Cox