“Monsters, Inc.” represented a lot of firsts for the Pixar animation studio. Released in the fall of 2001, it was the first film without the direct supervision of John Lasseter, who had directed the three previous films for the studio and remains its chief creative force. It was also the first of their films to not be set entirely in “our” world (instead it was located in a distinctly monstrous alternate universe); the first one to feature a human character in the lead, too (the young girl Boo). And it would be the last to be wed to the patented Pixar buddy movie formula, although subsequent films have incorporated that element to varying degrees. But it’s easy to forget about all the groundbreaking qualities when watching “Monsters, Inc” in a newly 3D-ified version on the big screen this week, and just get lost in all the crazy fun (again).
The movie, as anyone who saw it originally or has a child between the ages of 3 and 11 knows, takes place in the fantastical land of Monstropolis, where monsters sneak through dimensional portals (doors) into the rooms of small children to scare them (the chief source of energy in Monstropolis is human screams). But when Monstropolis’ top scare-generators, Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman), accidentally let a human child into their world, all hell breaks loose, and the two monsters have to scramble to get the child (who they have named Boo) back into the human world. Along the way they’ve got to restore normalcy to Monstropolis (which is under a severe “scream shortage”) and discover what role their rival Randall (Steve Buscemi) has in a company-wide conspiracy.
“Monsters, Inc.” featured a prolonged development period, even by the strained standards of animation. Animators and software technicians worked on developing things like fur, skin, hair and scales — organic textures whose naturalism runs in direct opposition to the mathematic exactitude of computer animation. Most of this stuff ended up not making it into the final film, and the financial strain put on the then-independent company would mean that their next effort, the record-breaking “Finding Nemo,” would be something of a low budget affair. Still, that kind of restless experimentation and willingness to try anything seeps into every nook and cranny of the movie.
This is particularly evident in the creation of this parallel world and all of the “rules” of the universe – like how all of the monsters that are regularly captured on film in the human world (Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti) were banished from the monster realm; and the mechanical system that the monsters use to get to the other side, which climaxes in the jaw-dropping “door chase” (more on that in a minute). Not everything works, but what does, really leaves an impression and makes up for the movie’s other shortcomings.
While “Monsters, Inc.” isn’t the most sophisticated Pixar movie, either visually or story-wise, with designs that oftentimes border on the simplistic (or worse yet, downright ugly) and a narrative that sometimes feels unable to sustain its brisk 92-minute running time, it is (maybe still) the funniest Pixar movie. The interplay between Goodman and Crystal (who, contrary to most animated movies, recorded their dialogue together) is sensational and naturalistic and many of the jokes are still laugh out loud hilarious. Smartly inverting the standard cliché of the big guy being the dumb one and the little guy being smart, Crystal’s Mike is a neurotic ball of nervous energy (literally), while Sulley is the epitome of calm professionalism. Co-director David Silverman was a veteran of “The Simpsons” (he would eventually leave Pixar to helm “The Simpsons Movie“) and “Monsters, Inc.” crackles with a similar wild, witty energy.
“Monsters, Inc.” is a Pixar movie particularly suited for the 3D conversion that has retrofitted “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Finding Nemo” in recent months. The monster world is an incredibly tactile one, and the newly dimensional version gives every image some real oomph – the bristle of Sulley’s fur, the epic vastness of the “Scare Floor,” and, most importantly, the aforementioned door chase. Ah the door chase! There’s a “Monsters, Inc.”-themed attraction at Disney California Adventure and the most eye-widening moment is the one that recreates the door chase. Being any closer to that moment is almost transcendent, and seeing it in 3D, with the doors whooshing past, is truly astounding. (It makes the promise of next summer’s college-set prequel “Monsters University,” which will be released in 3D, even more exciting.)
But more than any 3D whiz-bang moment, the thing that makes “Monsters, Inc.” such an enduring gem is its underlying emotion. It’s easily one of the most heart-tugging Pixar movies (director Pete Docter would go on to craft the three-hanky-worthy “Up” for the studio) and that comes through, whether flat or newly bumpy. Boo is a really wonderful emotional center for a movie that pushed (at the time, anyway) the comfortable bounds of surrealism for the studio, and her arc is what makes it so satisfying, instead of merely being collection of expertly delivered jokes and colorful characters. These monsters might be all about the scares, but “Monsters, Inc.” is all about the heart. [A]