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If you were around to see Monster’s, Inc. when it hit theaters, the first thing you surely thought was, whoa, how did they do that? Sure, computer animation was blowing our minds for nearly a decade already, from Jurassic Park to Toy Story, but when we caught our first glimpse of Sully, a creature with fur so believably real it looked like we could reach out and stroke it, well, that popped circuits in our brains we didn’t even know we had and we straight up forgave any issues we had with the story and just watched slack-jawed at the visuals.
Not that there was really anything to quip about in this charming, often very funny and heartwarming little adventure that was not only a huge box office hit but had critics all in agreement: Pixar had done it again. It’s a clever and inspiring story held together by terrific voicework and loads of creative characters that keeps kid happy and adults plenty entertained. Let’s take a look.
There’s probably not a one of us who, as a child, didn’t have something in our room at night that made turning off the lights a potential hair-raising experience. The old standby is of course the closet door, a go-to source of horror in movies and the perfect place to kick off a movie about monsters in the dark. Sort of. In the world of Monsters, Inc., Monsters live in a separate plane of existence, another dimension if you will, that is accessible through closet doors when properly engaged in the Monsters, Inc. scare floor facility. Here, once locked into place, highly-trained scarers enter a child’s room through the closet, does a bit of scarring and the screams are collected in small yellow containers that are used as an energy source. The problem is that there is an energy crisis. Kids these days just aren’t as terrified of classic monsters in the closet so much and well, the monsters have to work extra hard to keep the place powered.
The most famous of these scarers is a big fluffy purple-polkadotted fellow named James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman). His handler, best friend, and roommate is a one-eyed green ball-ish thing with spindly legs and arms named Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal). The team has consistently been the top scarers though a creepy lizard-like monster named Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi) is closing in and is secretly trying to up his score by scaring off hours, illegally. Accidently, Sully discovers a door and opens it, allowing the human child on the other side to enter the monster’s world. Whoops.
The thing is, human kids are considered fatally toxic and so Sully is at first horrified at what’s happened and unable to get her back through the door, ends up bringing her home where he and a panicked Mike try to figure out what to do. Along they way, however, they make a startling discovery that shifts everything they thought they knew about humans while uncovering a diabolical plot that goes all the way to the top.
So we’ll have to get into a little spoilery territory here to move on but basically, the little girl, or ‘Boo’ as Sully begins to call her, is kinda cute and thinks all this monster stuff is funny, not really realizing that her new friends can in fact be scary, too. For her, Randall is the only true monster and as such, big hairy Sully is a real pal. Once he and Mike realize that she’s not at all dangerous, they take to her too, especially Sully, but they both know that they have to get her back to her world, and they must do it secretly.
Doing so isn’t so easy, because the whole place is on guard now, the factory heavily patrolled by the CDA (Child Detection Agency) – yellow hazard suit wearing monsters sweeping the place to find her. Disguising her as a little beast – as Sully’s cousin’s sister’s kid – they manage to get inside and try to put their plan in action, discovering more information about a strange scheme Randall is up to, one that Sully thinks he needs to share with the Monsters, Inc. chairman Henry J. Waternoose (voiced by James Coburn). They make their way to see him at an instructional practicing room where initiate monsters can learn to scare with simulation technology. Waternoose had previously asked Sully to stop by and give the new recruits some tips as the latest batch doesn’t seem to have the knack for frights.
Sully is desperate to explain to Waternoose what he’s learned, something that could have profound effect on the industry, but Waternoose is not hearing it, more interested in Sully giving a demonstration of his much-celebrated nightmare-inducing skills. Meanwhile, little Boo, still dressed as a monster, wanders onto the simulation set while Waternoose resets the device and pushes Sully to show off his goods.
Frustrated and angered at the inconveniences, Sully gives in, hoping to get it over with and tell the chairman what they’ve learned. He faces the mock child in the simulation machine and lets rip a magnificent, spine-tingly roar that flat out blows away the onlookers … and terrifies little Boo, who was looking right at him when it happened. She runs off to hide while Sully stares in shock at what he’s done. Now hiding in the shadows to avoid her friend, Boo wants nothing to do with him while Sully tries to console her back, but she only weeps with fear and scurries away. Everything has changed.
So here’s the first real emotional shift in the film, where the tone definitely takes a turn from the light-hearted comedy it’s set up to something much more impactful as the story begins to invest much more deeply into the characters and our involvement with them. That’s the thing Pixar does best, keeping their movies entertaining while giving them remarkable humanity. The thing with Sully and Boo is that their relationship is outside the boundaries of the world they live in, where monsters and humans remain divided by strict physical laws and prejudicial assumptions.
Monsters have been raised to fear children, which is the central irony of the plot, seeing as how they are forced to extract screams of fear from kids in order to survive. Kinda like sneaking up on a shark and poking it with a stick before running back inside the cage. That’s why ‘scarers’ are so special, being brave and courageous in the face of uncertain demise while supplying energy to the Monster’s universe. They are rock stars for it.
When Sully learns that children are in fact not dangerous – in fact entirely the opposite – it shatters everything about the world he grew up in, the world he now provides for. He also develops a bond with the little girl, a protective one, recognizing her vulnerability and value. It’s actually quite paternal. And a little touching. Children watching see the warmth and compassion in the big bear-like Sully and adults react to the innocence of Boo, our own caregiving impulses kicking in.
So it is that when Sully lets loose his roar, and reveals the monster inside him, it resets everything within Boo, most especially the trust they have established. She cowers in fear of course, her instincts to do so, but it’s not that he’s scary that sends her running from this ‘other’ Sully, but the perceived betrayal of it all that has her shook. Pixar animators do a remarkable job of conveying this, having her pressed into a corner, wide-eyed and unsure. It’s important that she doesn’t look away, for she never does, because the fear has nothing to with how he looks when in monster mode but that it’s there at all. She sees in ‘Kitty’, her name for him, the monster in Randall, himself the most foul a child could experience, and it’s this realization, that even the most trusted can be dark, which tilts her so. She doesn’t care any less for Sully, it’s just now she knows that in even the thing she loves, there may be something to fear. It’s an important lesson.
What makes this smart is how Sully has the chance to see himself after the fact. While he tries to console Boo, he sees on the monitors above her head, images of his face and her reaction during the simulation. He realizes what he looks like to children, and as his fundamental opinion of kids has now changed, it horrifies him. What has he done? This is crucial for the story because it strips Sully of the ‘monster’ identifiers and makes him human. He now sets aside everything that motivated him before and commits himself to saving Boo and rebuilding her trust, even at great personal cost to himself and his friendship with Mike. That feeling of emptiness and abandonment is wonderfully illustrated in the next sequence when Sully and Mike get banished from the Monster world and into the isolation of the human world, high atop the Himalayas. It’s a metaphorical wasteland of guilt and sorrow where he’s imprisoned by his loss, forced to make a choice to live in the cold truth of this new reality or fight to return and make things right. It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling.
Monsters, Inc. is a genuinely funny and creative children’s animated story and another terrific entry in the Pixar canon, packed with sensational visuals and top-notch writing. While it’s loaded with really fun performances, the relationship between a big monster and a little girl is the real heart of the story. It being tested for the first time makes for the film’s best highlight. It’s a great cinematic moment.