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Monsters, Inc.

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Animated film (2001). Walt Disney Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company), Pixar. Directed by Pete Docter, David Silverman and Lee Unkrich. Cast includes Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs and John Goodman. Written by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson, based on a story by Docter, Jill Culton, Jeff Pidgeon and Ralph Eggleston. 88 minutes. Colour.

Why are all children scared of the door once the light is turned off at bedtime? Best known for producing anthropomorphic fantasies, Monsters, Inc. was Pixar's first venture into more original territory and answers this question with a brilliant science fiction premise. Monstropolis, a Parallel Worlds version of New York, uses children's screams as its Power Source and these are harvested through portals that connect via a kind of Matter Transmission to doors in our world. In one of the strong visual motifs characteristic of the film's design philosophy, the portals are literally the children's doors, each one a unique reflection of the bedroom it came from (the staggeringly huge warehouse they are stored in awaiting activation also provides the location for the memorable set-piece climax).

Despite their fearsome appearance, the Monsters that come through these doors are just doing their jobs; blue-furred blue-collar hero James "Sulley" Sullivan (Goodman) and one-eyed comic relief cornerman Mike Wazowski (Crystal) are the top scaring team for Monsters, Incorporated ("We Scare Because We Care"). Since children are considered to be toxic and their bedrooms hostile, Sulley is a combination of Stakhanovite and The Right Stuff pioneer (the 1983 film version being explicitly evoked by his first appearance on the "scaring floor"). His heroic efforts notwithstanding, Monstropolis is suffering from an energy shortage due to the fact modern children are harder to frighten. Once this resource has run dry, their doors are summarily shredded. This looming energy crisis lurks in the background but the plot is kickstarted when Sulley accidentally brings a small girl, Boo (a joyous, burbling performance from the two-year-old Gibbs), back with them.

Whilst all Pixar films rely on humour, this is their closest approach to a pure comedy, cleverly but conventionally structured as a three-act drama. Sulley and Mike have to get Boo back to her room whilst working out what number-two scarer Randall (the ever creepy Buscemi) is plotting. The real appeal, however, is the exquisite physical comedy, visual jokes, cumulative gags and the running commentary from comedian Crystal. The setting also allows for some gentle parody of the Nuclear Energy industry and, unusually for a children's film, Satire of the workplace and office politics. In the midst of this, Docter, Silverman and Unkrich also manage to craft an extremely emotionally affecting film from the surrogate family of the three leads. It is perhaps troubling that women are once again excluded from parenthood – as also happens in the later Pixar films Finding Nemo (2003) and Up (2009) – but the deeply touching bond formed between Monster and child is hard to begrudge. In a fitting conclusion (and lovely inversion of the central premise), Sulley and Mike discover that laughter is ten times more powerful than screams and not only is the day saved but the sidekick becomes the leading man.

The film was nominated for the inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Feature but lost to Shrek (2001). Although this proved to be atypical – every subsequent Pixar film until Cars 2 (2011) was nominated and, of these, only Cars (2006) lost – the film is widely loved and has stood the test of time. A prequel, Monsters University (2013), explains how Sulley and Mike came to work for Monsters, Incorporated but jettisons the interesting sf content of the original film in favour of gentle campus comedy and odd-couple hijinks. [ML]

see also: Cinema; Humour; Children's SF.


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