Monsters, Inc. (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Remember when, as a child, you used to fear the monster under the bed or in the closet - how your parents would tell you to go to sleep, that it wasn't real? Monsters, Inc. confirms what every child really knows - the things that go bump in the night have more substance than silly grown ups recognize. Brought to the screen by the marriage of Disney and Pixar, Monsters, Inc. is the fourth computer animated motion picture offspring of this union. Like its older siblings, Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. is a triumph of storytelling. Each new movie of this sort raises the bar a little more, and, while Monsters, Inc. doesn't eclipse Dreamworks' Shrek, it comes close.

There's a world out there, somewhere under the rainbow, where monsters live. The sprawling city where they go about their daily lives is called Monstropolis - a vast, bustling place populated by all sorts of misshapen creatures who would cause the average human child to crawl under the covers. Energy in Monstropolis comes from an unusual source - the screams of children. Employees working for mega-corporation Monsters, Inc. go through gateways into the bedroom of human kids on Earth, frighten them into screaming, capture the energy from the screams, and convert it to electricity in Monstropolis. But, since children are becoming harder to scare, Monstropolis is facing a "scream shortage."

The most successful scream team at Monsters, Inc. is comprised of Sulley Sullivan (voice of John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). Sulley, really a gentle giant, is the scary one; Mike is his wisecracking partner. Together, they're approaching the all-time scream record. Their lone challenger is Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who will stop at nothing to move past them. One night, after hours, Randall decides to cheat by making some unauthorized trips to the other side. Sulley accidentally discovers his plot. When he opens a door Randall has set up, a catastrophe occurs - a little girl, Boo (Mary Gibbs), crosses the threshold into the monsters' world. Suddenly, the greatest imaginable horror in monster society has occurred - a child from Earth has entered Monstropolis. Chaos reigns as Sulley and Mike try to hide the girl, protect themselves, and expose Randall's secret scheme - which goes beyond cheating.

Everything that was true of the two Toy Story movies and A Bug's Life can be said about Monsters, Inc. - this is the kind of movie that works on multiple levels - as fast-moving, lively fun for children and as slyly written, visually impressive entertainment for adults. Monsters, Inc. is one of those rare family films that parents can enjoy (rather than endure) along with their kids. And childless individuals venturing into a theater showing this picture need not worry that they'll be viewed as deviants - Monsters, Inc. is capable of drawing audience members from across the age spectrum.

The older the viewer, the more in-jokes they'll get. Most everyone will appreciate the "Don't Stalk" street sign and the tabloid newspaper called "The Glob". But it will take someone with a little more sophistication than the average 10-year old to get a chuckle out of the club named "Harryhausen's". From a visual standpoint, Monsters, Inc. is a small step forward from Toy Story 2 in its variety, richness of design, and background detail. I say a "small step" because Toy Story 2 was strong in all of these areas - Monsters, Inc. is just a little better.

The great strength of the previous Pixar films, as well as Shrek, is that they offer a genuine emotional component that runs deeper than that of the run-of-the-mill animated feature. Such is the case here, where the attachment between burly Sulley and tiny Boo touches the heart. Part of it is because the animators have pulled out all the stops in making Boo shamelessly cute, but it does the job. The little girl brings out Sulley's soft side and smoothes some of Mike's rough edges. (As in Shrek, the animators opt to make the human characters somewhat "unreal", rather than going the Final Fantasy route and attempting to replicate actual human appearance.)

Monsters, Inc. manages to last 90 minutes without a single song. Too often, music has become a crutch in animated productions (rather than the asset it can be when used appropriately). The fact that Monsters, Inc. doesn't need Randy Newman songs sprinkled throughout (although there is one during the end credits) is a testimony to the strength of the writing and the vocal characterizations. John Goodman and Billy Crystal make for an effective odd couple (in a break from tradition, they recorded their parts together, rather than separately). James Coburn is suitably dignified as Henry J. Waternoose, the owner of Monsters, Inc. Jennifer Tilly lends her helium-like voice to Celia, Mike's girlfriend; Steve Buscemi is hardly recognizable as the diabolical Randall; and Mary Gibbs' baby-talk makes Boo all the more adorable.

Judging by box office results, it appears that the future (or at least the immediate future) of animated films may be in the computer generated arena rather than that of traditional animation. Disney's most recent conventional animated offerings, The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis, have underperformed, while Shrek will finish 2001 as one of the top 5 grossing films of the year. As long as future computer animated films maintain the same level of quality as that of the pioneers in the field, their ascendance can only be seen as a positive thing. Monsters, Inc. reaffirms the fact that a good animated film can be every bit as stimulating and emotionally satisfying a motion picture as a high quality live action endeavor. While this movie may threaten to be swamped by Harry Potter mania this fall, it definitely deserves to be seen. Young Mr. Potter may practice magic, but Monsters, Inc. is nothing short of enchanting.

Monsters, Inc. (United States, 2001)

Director: Peter Docter, David Silverman
Cast: (voices) Billy Crystal, John Goodman, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi
Screenplay: Dan Gerson, Andrew Stanton
Music: Randy Newman
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2001-11-02
MPAA Rating: "G"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1