Monsters, Inc.
Pixar scares up another hit
Monsters, Inc.
Pixar Animation Studios
Directed by Pete Docter
USA, 2001
The problem with hitting a home run on your first swing is that it can set up unrealistic expectations. Then you have cases like Pixar Animation Studios; in the fifteen years they've been around--they weren't even Pixar back in 1986, but a division of Lucasfilm--they've knocked it out of the park with every short or feature film they've made. So I was a little apprehensive about seeing Monsters, Inc., their fourth feature. Would I be setting myself up for disappointment if I expected them to maintain their amazing track record? Or would I be more disappointed if they delivered more of the same, even if it was skillfully created and highly entertaining?

As it turns out, there was a third option: something not exactly like previous works, but still a success. Like every Pixar work before it, Monsters, Inc. combines the worlds of both children and adults to produce a lively, funny movie that demands repeat viewings. That's no exaggeration: Monsters, Inc. is the first Pixar feature with an honest-to-God title sequence, designed and animated like the opening to a mid-1960s screwball comedy. At once nostalgic and playfully inventive, I wanted to see it again as soon as it faded from the screen. Then there are the monsters themselves, as varied as snowflakes: furry, tentacled, one-eyed, many-eyed, slithering, or oozing, they populate a parallel world that's just ripe for sight gags. There are so many wackily imaginative creatures in the background it would take multiple screenings (or heavy use of the slow-motion button on the eventual DVD release) to get a good look at them all and find out what they're up to.

The two main monsters are best buds Sulley (voice of John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). True to form, the characters borrow something from their vocalists' personas: the blue and furry Sulley is a big, lovable guy with an easy smile; the cyclopean Mike is a good-natured wiseacre with the kind of rat-a-tat-tat delivery Crystal used to do on Saturday Night Live. The pair live in Monstropolis and work as Scarers for Monsters, Inc., where they jump through dimensional gateways that lead them into children's closets. From there they scare the slumbering kids, and channel the energy from the tykes' screams to provide Monstropolis with electricity.

Life is good for our heroes until Sulley, working late one evening, discovers that a little girl has accidentally wandered into the monster world. Humans are considered highly toxic, even deadly to the touch, and the company can't afford the PR disaster of one of these creatures running loose. Sulley tries to set everything right and get her back home quietly, but the situation quickly spirals out of control.

Monsters, Inc. is the first Pixar feature that doesn't have John Lasseter in a directing or writing capacity (For the Birds, which precedes it, is the second short without him at the helm), and as such its rhythms are different from either of the Toy Story films or A Bug's Life. But first-time director Pete Docter has been part of the Pixar group for some time, so it's an easy fit. While the film definitely bears Docter's stamp, it has everything audiences have come to love about Pixar's movies: clever writing, witty dialogue, an underlying warmth that resists sappiness, and incredibly rendered computer graphics that try not to call attention to how incredibly rendered they are. And as usual, there are the in-jokes: aside from a split-second Toy Story 2 cameo, there's a note-for-note homage to the 1952 Warner Bros. cartoon Feed the Kitty which, though not as funny as the original (that may be scientifically impossible) can still generate more honest guffaws than most of what passes for zaniness in kids' movies these days.

And there's the secret to Pixar's unbroken string of hits: they stay honest with their audience and deliver exactly what they promise--a solid, entertaining story with genuinely funny and appealing characters. Maybe we will be disappointed one day, but so long as their directors stay true to that basic principle, that will be a long time in coming.

A Critical Eye exclusive (October 31, 2001)
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