Monsters, Inc. (Docter, Silverman, Unkrich, 2001)

Monsters, Inc.

You know the biggest shock about revisiting Monsters, Inc. ten years later? It was the “Coming Soon” preview for Disney’s Treasure Planet. It is a sign of how quickly things can change in a decade that I had to strain to recall that Pixar wasn’t always the seven hundred pound gorilla in the animation room. The Treasure Planet preview was even more disconcerting than the preview for Finding Nemo, which sent me scurrying to Wikipedia to recall the order in which Pixar films were released. Toy Story 2 was the third offering from the studio? Really? Monsters, Inc. won one Oscar, but it wasn’t for Best Animated Feature (that went to Shrek–think the Academy wants a do over?) but rather for Best Song. It probably says something about both me and the award that I just rescreened the film about two weeks ago for this column and I couldn’t hum a bar of it if my paycheck depended on it.

What I Said Then

In 2001, at Viewpoint (a personal film blog, now defunct), I posted a Top 5 (rather than 10) at the end of my film viewing year. Monsters, Inc. came in at #5:

The number 5 slot is usually reserved for a commercially successful studio film that succeeds in entertaining well even if it has little pretension of being important. I choose Monsters Inc. because I enjoyed it incrementally more than other successful pieces that sought primarily or solely to entertain rather than challenge (Shrek, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Oceans 11, Harry Potter). Why? Who knows. Like Toy Story 2, it really is a feel good movie at heart, with John Goodman’s Sully becoming the surrogate father that was so hauntingly absent from both Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

What I Say Now

Monsters, Inc. was enjoyable enough on a second viewing, but like most of the second tier Pixar films, the pleasures are almost all in the concept rather than the execution. The majority of the laughs are in the first thirty minutes. Granted, defenders of the film might say this, too, is by intention, following the formula of moving seamlessly from humor to pathos. I’m not buying, though. Oh, the heartstrings are plucked fairly well enough, but I do think it is trying to keep its edge well into the second and third act. As avatars for celebrity voices, Mike (Billy Crystal) is pretty generic, leaving only Sully (John Goodman) as a memorable character from the film.  I’ll tell you one thing I do love about the film: the color palette. Through most of the first half of the film I kept thinking, “This is so bright!” Then it hit me…I’m already calibrated to the persistent, incessant, need to make everything in 3D, with the indoor glasses not dark enough to protect you from the rays of the sun but plenty dark enough to make everything you watch look like it has a grey haze over it.

The Verdict

I didn’t give the film a grade the first time around, but as it made my “Top 5” and I ranked it higher than at least one film I originally gave an A- to, I’m assuming I gave it the highest marks. That strikes me as way too generous today. The concept was and is wonderful, and you can see the studio taking its new technology out for a spin to see what it can do. My beef with a lot of the second tier Pixar films (Wall-e, Cars, UpA Bug’s Life), though, is that so much of the creativity goes into Rube Goldber-esque chases and setting detail that the story and character development often get short shrift. Even so, Monsters, Inc. only really looks bad if you are comparing it against some of the very best animated features of all time. I’d still take it over Shrek in a heart beat, and while I may not think it as accomplished as Toy Story 3, which didn’t crack my top ten a decade later, its ranking has more to do with the volume of films I see now as opposed to then. In retrospect I think I inflated the film’s value–which is funny, because a decade later, I feel like the one who is forever throwing cold water on the Pixar lovefests, usually the one trying to hold the line between “very good” and ‘great.”

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