Saturday, June 22, 2013

Stubs - Monsters, Inc.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) Starring the voices of: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Frank Oz. Directed by Pete Docter. Produced by Darla K. Anderson. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Daniel Gerson. Original Story by Pete Docter, Jill Culton, Jeff Pidgeon and Ralph Eggleston.  Run Time: 92 minutes. U.S.  Color. Animated, Fantasy

While Pixar’s reputation has taken a hit lately, back in 2001, the computer-animation studio was riding high after their initial splash with Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998) and Toy Story 2 (1999). Monsters, Inc. was the company’s fourth feature film. There seemed to be a definite pattern to Pixar’s success, besides a good story and top-flight computer animation, the first three films had featured talented actors: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey; music by Randy Newman and a supporting voice by John Ratzenberger (of Cheers fame).

Monsters, Inc. followed suit starring John Goodman from TV’s Rosanne and several Coen brothers films; and Billy Crystal, the stand-up comic, Saturday Night Live and Soap alum in the lead roles. And for the fourth straight film, songs by Newman, more than an hour’s worth. (Sadly none of the songs rise to the heights of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story). Ratzenberger is also back in a small, but supporting role.

James P. Sullivan (Goodman), a big blue furry monster, is the top Scarer in Monstropolis, a city inhabited by monsters, which is powered by the screams of human children. The monsters enter through the child’s closet and capture the screams to turn the turbines. However, the times they are a-changing. Thanks to television and the internet, human children are much harder to scare and Henry J. Waternoose III (James Coburn) is determined to find a solution.

James P. "Sulley" Sullivan voiced by John Goodman
Sulley, as he’s known, lives with his assistant and bestest bud, Mike Wazowski (Crystal) a one-eyed green ball with arms and legs, whom, according to the story, have known each other since childhood (quick memory erase needed for the prequel). Sulley and Mike have a rivalry with Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), a chameleon-like monster, and Jeff Fungus (Frank Oz), a red-skinned three-eyed monster, for being the number one Scarer.

Mike Wazowski, voiced by Billy Crystal.
The one rule is never to bring back a child or even a hint of a child from the human world to the Scarefloor, as George Sanderson finds out when he accidentally brings back a sock. All hell breaks loose as agents from the CDA (Child Detection Agency) arrive and decontaminate him (shave off all his fur) and explode the offending sock, like it was a bomb.

Like any bureaucracy, there is paperwork, which Mike is supposed to file with Roz (Bob Peterson), a slug-like raspy-voiced monster who is the administrative clerk for the Scarefloor. But Mike would rather go on a date with Celia (Jennifer Tilley), the receptionist, who, like Mike has one-eye, but also has snakes for hair and tentacles for legs. Being a pal, Sulley offers to file the paperwork for him. And that’s when things start to go awry. Sulley goes on to the Scarefloor to retrieve the paperwork. There he discovers that a door has been left activated. (We learn later Randall left it there and Mike tells us it’s an attempt to cheat his way to the top).When Sulley investigates, he accidentally brings back a young girl, who he names Boo (Mary Gibbs), from the human side.

Roz, voiced by Bob Peterson.
Try as he might, Sulley can’t shake Boo. After several attempts to put her back, he ends up hiding her, when Randall returns to return the activated door to storage. Scared of facing George Sanderson’s fate, Sulley hides Boo in a bag and goes looking for Mike to help him. Mike is at Harryhausen’s (get it?) on a date with Celia for her birthday. While Sulley is trying to explain the situation to Mike, Boo escapes. Her being discovered results in the CDA being called to the scene. In the chaos that erupts, Sulley and Mike manage to escape and take Boo home, where they discover she is not toxic after all.

Mike on a date with Celia (Jennifer Tilley) at Harryhausen's.
The next day, they try to smuggle Boo into the factory and send her back, but Randall gets wind of the plan and tries to kidnap Boo, grabbing Mike by mistake. Randall reveals to Mike that he has built a Scream Extractor that will make the company’s current method of collection redundant. Sulley saves Mike from Randall’s experimentation, replacing Mike with Fungus.

Randall, voiced by Steve Buscemi.
Sulley reports Randall to Waternoose, but finds out that the two are really in cahoots. Waternoose exiles Sulley and Mike to the Himalayas. There they make friends with the Abominable Snowman (John Ratzenberger) who informs them there is a village nearby. Seizing on the opportunity to get back to the monster world and save Boo, Sulley runs off. Mike, who blames Sulley for their predicament, refuses to go.

Henry J. Waternoose III, voiced by James Coburn.
Sulley returns and rescues Boo from the Scream Extractor. Mike returns and apologizes to Sulley and together they fight and defeat Randall.

During the fight, Randall chases Sulley and Mike down the closet door conveyor belt through the warehouse where there are millions of doors. (Think the baggage claim scene in Toy Story 2 only on steroids.) Boo’s laughter activates the doors, and the chase goes back and forth between human and monster worlds. That is until Randall gets trapped in the human world in a southern trailer park, where Randall is mistaken for an alligator and beaten by hillbillies (LOL, backward hicks).

Boo’s door is sent by Waternoose and the CDA to the Scarefloor. Mike distracts the CDA agents while Sulley escapes with Boo and her door. But Waternoose isn’t done and follows. Waternoose is tricked into confessing his plan to kidnap children and gets busted by the CDA and their leader, who happens to be Roz.
Sulley and Mike say good-bye to Boo and return her home. Roz orders her door to be destroyed (shredded). Sulley ascends to the chairmanship of Monsters, Inc., replacing Waternoose. And he has a plan to end Monstropolis’ energy crisis.

Productivity is up when Sulley’s new plan is implemented. The monsters now enter the children’s room to entertain them. Laughter proves to be ten times more powerful than screams. Mike takes Sulley to show him Boo’s door, which he has been rebuilding piece by piece from the shredder. Sulley has kept the last piece as a keepsake and when he puts it back, the door activates. Sulley is then able to enter Boo’s room and the two are reunited.
Boo, voiced by Mary Gibbs.
The movie is funny, clever and ambitious. Chalk up another win for Pixar, which always seems to try and out do themselves. The film was a great success at the time and it still holds up a dozen years later. Just like the other Pixar films, Monster’s, Inc. was a financial success, further cementing Pixar’s then reputation as the little hit-making studio that never missed. Reality set in a few releases ago (can anyone say Cars 2?) and we now know that Pixar is mortal and not perfect, though they have yet to suffer an out and out flop.

If there is a problem with Monsters, Inc. it’s that there might actually be too much story for the intended audience. I know that I often complain about a lack of story in films, but in those cases it’s not really the quantity, but rather the quality. However, you can have too much. There is a balancing act that a company like Pixar has, trying to appeal to a family audience, which really means children, and trying to keep the adults entertained and engaged. This is not easy and sometimes Pixar films can get out of balance. In order to squeeze everything in, they resort to stereotypes as short cuts, like Sulley’s mentor, Waternoose, who is really evil. We’ve seen it before, so we accept it and move on. And the Himalayan bit seems tacked on, serving only as a way of getting John Ratzenberger into the film.

There are also some plot holes. To begin with, why are human children considered toxic? I don’t really think the film explains that very well. It’s just an accepted myth that every monster believes. Old man Waternoose obviously knows better as he is unafraid of Boo when he finally meets her, coupled with the fact he and Randall are planning to kidnap human children and bring them back to the monster world to extract their screams for power. But why the pretense in the first place, except to show us the storm-trooping CDA in action?

And for me, Mike’s return from the Himalayas happens much too quickly and easily. We’re told the Nepal village is a three day hike and we see Sulley flying down the hill on a homemade sled while Mike is back at the Abominable’s cave sulking. It is a perilous trip for Sulley, down the mountain in a snow storm, but Mike pops back at Monsters, Inc. within a few minutes of Sulley’s arrival; mad and throwing lemon snow cones, but no worse for wear. How did that happen? We all knew he would return, but his has no adventure or thought process attached to it. He obviously gets over his resentment very quickly; are we supposed to believe there is another sled ready to go?

I know you’re saying “bitch, bitch, bitch, it’s a kid’s movie”, but the holes/plot convenience are still there. Acceptance of bad storytelling starts when the audience is young and films like this are gateways to a lifetime of poorly written television, movies and web content to follow.

This is not to say that I don’t like Monsters, Inc. I had not seen the film in over a decade, so these comments are based on my most recent viewing, not when I watched it in the movie theater. The film holds up very well and even though Pixar is constantly striving to improve their renderings, this still looks very good and state-of-the-art.

The formula at Pixar was also changing. After their next film, Finding Nemo (2003), the films would start coming out one a year. Randy Newman would no longer be the only composer. Soon they would be eaten up by the larger Disney company and become a cog in that company’s larger production wheel. Some of the independent mindedness would start to think more corporate. Eventually, this would catch up to Pixar.

While I would definitely recommend Monsters, Inc., especially if you’ve never seen it, I don’t know yet if I can say the same for the prequel, Monsters University. I’m hoping the newer film can live up to the legacy of this one. But given Pixar’s recent offerings, I’m hopeful, but not overly optimistic.

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