Sunday, April 5, 2015

Coming Out of the Closet

Film: Monsters, Inc.
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Monsters, Inc. is what turned me into a Pixar believer. When Toy Story was released, I didn’t have kids and both A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2 came out when my oldest daughter was just a baby. But with Monsters, Inc., Gail was three and old enough to see it and get it. So not only did this make me a Pixar believer, it was also my first Pixar film. I’ll just say it here: I think this is about as close to a perfect family film as exists. If you prefer to read angry rants, I’m not going to be complying this time. This is going to be 800-1000 words of me gushing.

For the two people who still haven’t seen it, Monsters, Inc. posits the idea that the monster in the closet in the room of a little kid is a real thing. in fact, there’s an entire monster world that has an industry that depends on the nighttime fears of children. Monsters come out of children’s closets to scare them, because the noise of the screams of frightened children is then used by the monsters as energy. Our main characters are James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), the top scarer for Monsters, Incorporated and his work partner and roommate Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). Sully is a big, furry blue and purple monster with horns who is great at scaring kids when on the clock and easygoing otherwise. Mike, a green sphere with arms and legs and a single eye is a little more intense and sometimes lost in his own delusions of grandeur.

The other conceit of Monsters, Inc. is that human children are actually thought to be toxic to the monsters. So the scarers need to get into kids rooms and scare them, but can’t touch anything and are under constant threat of being touched by the kids, an event that they assume will be fatal. Naturally, the entire film turns on a human child of about two that is eventually nicknamed Boo (Mary Gibbs) getting loosed into the monster world and under the protection of Mike and Sully. This happens because of a current energy shortage and the efforts of the company’s number 2 scarer, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi).

What follows is all sorts of mayhem caused by Mike, Sully, and Boo as the two monsters try to keep Boo hidden from the authorities and get the child back to her own world and her own room. Standing in their way is Randall and the Child Detection Agency. Throwing additional problems into the mix are Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), the president of Monsters, Inc. and Celia (Jennifer Tilly), Mike’s girlfriend and the company receptionist.

This is a family-friendly movie which means we’re going to end up with a happy ending. What makes Monsters, Inc. so effective as a film is that we can more or less guess that the film will culminate with Boo getting back home, but the path we take to get there is pretty exceptional. Additionally, Monsters, Inc. gives us an explanation for what might happen to some missing socks, the presence of creatures like Bigfoot and Nessie in our world, and quite a bit more. We also get some genuine comedy, crosses and double crosses, and one of the best and most inventive chase sequences in a film in a very long time.

Monsters, Inc. does a lot of things right. It gives us a completely consistent monster world, for instance. While we only get a few glimpses of the monster city (naturally called Monstropolis), it looks like a real city. The monster world is completely consistent internally, which makes the ability to suspend disbelief for the rest of the film much easier.

It also helps to have top-notch voice talent, and there’s not a performance here that isn’t a great one. Crystal and Goodman are great together, and both James Coburn and Jennifer Tilly have voices that I could listen to for ages without tiring. But all of the voice work is tremendous. The filmmakers, wanting something that sounded real for Boo let little Mary Gibbs just wander around and they recorded her for a lot of Boo’s dialogue. Sure, there were a few places they needed her to say specific lines, but much of what she says is just random kid chatter. That again adds to the reality of the world that we’re in.

Most of all, this is a very smart movie from start to finish. All of the pieces here fit seamlessly together and despite the fact that we are spending time in a world filled with monsters and in which monsters gain access to children’s closet doors through elaborate machinery, the whole thing works seamlessly.

Finally, Monsters, Inc. is one of those films that makes me tear up at the end, and I’m not afraid to admit it. The whole plot with Boo being loose in the monster world works itself out with a good bit of time still on the clock. How everything resolves again makes perfect sense—the ending in terms of the monster world isn’t a cheat despite things going so well for most of the characters we actually care about. But it’s the little coda at the end, where Mike demonstrates exactly how good a friend he is and the final resolution of the relationship between Sully and Boo that I get all emotionally rubbery. It’s just beautifully done.

If by some chance you haven’t seen Monsters, Inc., you’re missing out on one of the great film experiences of this century, animated or not.

Why to watch Monsters, Inc.: It’s pretty much a perfect film.
Why not to watch: Your heart is a stone.


  1. Yep, the ending does that to me too. In fact, I agree with every single thing you've written here. This is quintessential Pixar: it is clever, funny, perfect for the whole family, and most specifically, it is not afraid to get a little bit dark when it needs too. The moment when Boo sees Sully at his scariest is beautifully played.

    This and the Toy Story trilogy are the best Pixar for me. The quality just doesn't slip throughout the whole movie.

    1. The Incredibles is still my favorite animated film, but Monsters, Inc. might be the best one ever made. I can't think of way it could be made better.

      And you're right--there's not a down moment in the whole film.

  2. You are right about consistency. This is a critical element that is lost in too many children movies. Monstropolis actually works despite being a silly idea to begin with.
    When I first showed this one for my son he was too small and he got terribly scared. Now he loves the movie and so do I.

    1. Verisimilitude is for me one of the most important things in any movie that does anything apart from the real world. If your world doesn't work logically, the film breaks down completely, at least for me. If I believe in the world, I'm willing to believe in the story within the context of the film. Monsters, Inc. doesn't have any breaks.

  3. I like this one quite a bit, too, although I would put some other Pixar movies ahead of it. I never really understood when Finding Nemo and WALL-E came out why people were gushing over those and forgetting about Monsters, Inc., which I felt was better than both of them. (For the record, I like those, too.)

    Heck, why not just go down thru them:

    1. Toy Story 3
    2. Toy Story 2
    3. Up
    4. The Incredibles
    5. Monsters, Inc.
    6. Finding Nemo
    7. Toy Story
    8. Ratatouille
    9. WALL-E
    10. Monsters University
    11. A Bug's Life
    12. Brave
    13. Cars
    14. Cars 2

    1. We'd have some similarities in our lists, although I'm still missing two. For me it would go:
      1. The Incredibles
      2. Monsters, Inc.
      3. Toy Story 3
      4. Toy Story
      5. Up
      6. Ratatouille
      7. Toy Story 2
      8. WALL-E
      9. Finding Nemo
      10. Monsters University
      11. Cars
      12. A Bug's Life

      For what it's worth, though, I'd watch any of 1-9 on a moment's notice. There's very little space between a lot of those rankings and a very large gap from 9 to 10.

  4. You and I previously discussed how perfect the very last moment of Monsters, Inc. is.

    But what's with the dislike of A Bug's Life? Not my favorite Pixar film, but last?!?

    1. It's a coin flip on what I put where on the bottom three, really. There's not one of them I would go out of my way to see again.

  5. Interesting.

    I really enjoy A Bug's Life. It's not top tier Pixar, for sure, but I like many of the characters and have a real fondness for Dave Foley's Flick. And the two pill bugs are great. The story works for me and the villainous grasshoppers have some actual complexity. I especially like that Hopper has knowledge about their vulnerabilities the other grasshoppers lack.

    1. It's been some time since I've seen it. Perhaps I should give it another chance.

  6. Well, I'm no film-reviewy guy, but I think it's pretty good. And the cast is arguably Pixar's best: Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Madeline Kahn, Phyllis Diller, Roddy McDowell, Jonathan Harris, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Dennis Leary, Brad Garret, Richard Kind and Kevin Spacey! Holy crap.

    1. It is a strong cast, but Pixar often tends to have very strong casts. That might actually work against it in some respects. Cars has a hell of a strong cast as well--Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Tony Shaloub, Michael Keaton, Edie McClurg, Richard Kind...but that doesn't make it a great movie.