It’s intriguing to note that Monsters, Inc. was released the same year that the Academy established its Best Animated Feature award at the Oscar. Given Pixar’s absolute domination of the category, it says a lot that the film lost to Shrek. It does well, but not brilliantly: an amusing trifle from a studio whose best work still lay ahead of it. Like its cousins, it swings for the fences with appealing characters, a tight plot and clever technical innovation. Unlike the best Pixar efforts, it can’t manage more than a ground-rule double.
And it goes without saying that the new 3D conversion adds nothing to the overall experience. Disney is happy to milk its assets for all their worth – and with no other family movies in sight this Christmas, they pretty much have the field to themselves – but the unbridled greed involved leaves a bad taste behind it.
Having said all that, Monsters Inc. still offers charm to spare. Its hidden universe of ghoulies and boogeymen survives by mining the fear of little children, transforming it into energy to power their homes and offices. The best monsters work the nightly shift of bedroom closets, topped by furry blue shag rug Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and his globular green partner Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal). Fear levels start to flag at the worst possible time, as Sully’s rival Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi) makes a nasty move to claim the top spot. Then there’s the big risk of the children themselves: toxic to monsters despite the bountiful terror they provide. When a toddler named Boo accidentally follows Sulley home, it could destroy monster-dom as we know it.
The little girl forms both the plot’s impetus of the plot and the movie’s soft and cuddly heart. She’s absolutely adorable, and Sulley’s efforts to keep her safe point subtly towards the end game without giving too much away.
The phalanx of directors also does solid groundwork on world creation, with the monsters’ universe fully developed from both a conceptual and visual standpoint. Clever in-jokes pepper the script (such as a popular hang-out named Harryhausen’s), while the conceits often pay huge storytelling dividends … notably the disembodied closet doors through which the monsters travel on their nightly rounds. Monsters, Inc. doesn’t rest once it has the concept in hand, but carries it to its logical extreme: a huge warehouse full of doors, leading to one of the most innovative and exciting chase scenes ever devised (curse my feeble brain for forgetting it during our recent Best Chases countdown). Add to that a number of technical innovations (including Sulley’s fur, widely regarded as a game changer), and the film can’t help but impress.
With such a high standard, the few eventual shortcomings stand out all the more. The supporting characters mostly mill about with nothing to do, while the post-climactic resolution lacks the elegance that Pixar’s later efforts pulled off so easily. Sections drag a bit, particularly a subplot involving Mike and his girlfriend that would feel more at home in a lazy sitcom than animation of this caliber. They drag down the film’s better elements, turning it from another Pixar masterpiece into a pretty good second-tier effort for them.
Of course, “second-tier” for them is first-rate for anyone else, and Monsters, Inc. has already stood the test of time. That’s no mean feat, and another look in this new format can’t possibly hurt. We judge it only by the idealized expectations of its parent studio, which hit a grove shortly after Monsters, Inc. that may never be topped. I can’t fault the Academy for going with Shrek that year, but I’m glad that this honorable also-ran continues to put a smile on our faces.