Monsters, Inc., one of Pixar’s earliest efforts, retains its status over 20 years later as one of the studio’s finest films.
Out of every film Pixar has made, I have returned to Monsters, Inc. the most. This is for a couple reasons. I’d always loved the way the characters looked, and I knew Mike and Sully as part of the zeitgeist, but I never remembered actually watching the movie all the way through. As a college student I watched the film, possibly for the first time, and was so struck by how tidy its screenplay was, how confident it felt as an early film in the Pixar catalogue. Ever since then, it’s been my favorite film from the vaunted animation studio.
For anyone who hasn’t seen Monsters, Inc., the film follows two workaday monsters: James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). Sully’s the top “scarer” at Monsters Incorporated, a massive power plant that generates energy from the screams of children, and Mike fills a role somewhere between a coach and an agent for the star employee. The two run into trouble when a child accidentally crosses into the monster world, setting them at odds with company management and rival scarer Randall (Steve Buscemi).
If that premise seems a little too bureaucratic for a kids’ film, I tend to agree. Monsters, made in 2001 but pitched in 1994 at the same infamous lunch meeting as A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E, carries with it the weight of a fledgling animation studio still proving itself. The revolutionary technology of CGI animation and the animators who honed it reflects the shifting technologies of Monsters, Inc., however allegorical that comparison might be. The film concerns itself with energy and outmoded ways of producing it, much like the Pixar team had to stake their claim for CGI animation as a legitimate counter, or even replacement, for traditional animation. The film prints the legend, the success, and the viability of Pixar through its oddly material storytelling. In that way, it might be Pixar’s most important early film.
Importance is one thing, but you might ask: is it still any good? Although the film, now old enough to have graduated from Monsters University, certainly shows its age, Pixar was canny enough to future-proof the film. In the same way that Toy Story leaned into the limitations of Pixar’s technology, primarily choosing subjects that were already highly artificial to animate, Monsters, Inc. is, to put it bluntly, about big blobs surrounded by extremely sharp lines and simple geometry. The contrast between the fantastical creature design and the harsh corporate and city environments they inhabit functions as a running joke, but it also sets parameters for the animation.
While the character movement and design is impressive in ways already far beyond Toy Story’s, the rest of the film world is rigid and lacks personality. This works for and against the film; its rendering of a New York City-lite feels facile and underdeveloped, a copy-paste of real world structures, and the use of flattened 2D backdrops feels rushed, but Monsters, Inc. itself is impressive both in scale and subtle exaggeration of a factory environment.
The film’s biggest setpiece, the memorable door warehouse chase, is a particularly solid case for Monsters holding up to modern scrutiny. Limiting the backdrop to a deep chasm and hundreds of simple rectangles allows the film to stretch the frame and pack it with detail. The locale is legitimately otherworldly, overlooking a bottomless pit, all while the machinery of industry overwhelms it. The speed of the chase and especially Randall’s slippery movements remains impressive.
Monsters, Inc. is one of the obvious highlights in Pixar’s filmography, and even 20+ years later, it’s a supremely enjoyable technical marvel.
Monsters, Inc. is now available to watch on Disney Plus and on demand.
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