Monsters Inc. (2001)

D: Peter Docter
S: Voices of John Goodman, Billy Crystal

Enchanting, original animated feature from Pixar (A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2) following the adventures of a couple of hard working monsters from the city of Monstropolis whose job is to scare human children so that their city has enough energy. Their lives are complicated by the fact that most of them are terrified of humans, and things become even more chaotic when a little girl escapes into their world. Our central characters are voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, the former a big, good natured 'scarer' who finds himself becoming attached to the child, the latter a short, nervy equipment operator trying to balance his friendship, his job, and his love-life. It is a classic double act vocally and visually, and it provides the film with a strong character centre. Add to this all of the energy, humour, and visual invention we have come to expect from Pixar and you have another winning family film suitable for audiences of all ages.

It may be a moot point when responding to contemporary animation, but it is worth noting that once again there has been a quantum leap in computer generated imagery. The smooth surfaces of Pixar's previous film are gradually giving way to a more varied range of textures. The fur effects created for Goodman's character are excellent (more complex even than those seen in Stuart Little), as is the range of shading and shadow effects in response to an ever-more complex sense of light sources and their effects in a digitally-generated landscape.

The technological sophistication has brought with it (or been inspired by, who can tell), an increasing level of ambition on the part of the character designers. The denizens of Monstropois are a varied lot, with all manner of creatures from big to small, one-eyed to multiple eyes, single (or no) limbs to many. Even among the leading characters we have a slithery, lizard-like villain voiced by Steve Buscemi and a sort of spider in a waistcoat voiced by James Coburn. The clothing, hairstyles, body shape, and movement of all characters demonstrate imagination and humour enough to keep the eye constantly on the go. The film's colour scheme is also gorgeous, a palette of storybook colours perfectly suited to the story but adaptable enough to allow a generous range of tones to the individual scenes. The production design plays on recognisable technological and cultural elements from our own world and creates a city replete with diners, apartments, hard-hat workers, locker rooms, and an hilarious SWAT-type group dedicated to protecting Monstropolis from contamination by children.

The script equally inventive. The plot is straightforward but packed with enough incident to sustain the pace. The characters are entertaining and undergo sufficient growth and change to make them interesting. Again Pixar have found a classic hi-concept scenario which anyone can empathise with. What person has not at some point been afraid of a monster under the bed or in the closet, just as much as they were sure their toys came to life when they were not around? The film is also very funny, full of quips and gags, gentle good humour and slicker, more parodic elements when needed. It is even capable of generating genuine warmth and emotion from time to time, and has a very touching final scene which avoids going over the top into Disneyesque sentimentality. Getting these basics right gives the film its firm foundations, the technical effects are merely the icing on the cake.

Monsters Inc. is terrific (or hadn't you guessed already). It is more consistently original than Shrek, with better voice casting (listen up for Jon Ratzenberger and Wallace Shawn in cameos). Fans of Shrek may argue, and in all probability Monsters Inc. will be a runner-up in the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It is a pity though, because this is certainly as technically astute a film as Shrek, and it has a genuine warmth and character which its rival lacks and compensates for with (literally) showstopping in-jokes. Monsters Inc. has a much more organic flow to its storytelling and its humour arises out of character and situation. It feels more cohesive, tells a more original tale (granted Shrek was meant to be a parody, so its story was intended to be constructed from elements of others), and generally engages the heart and the imagination in a way the very best of Disney always has. It has the studio's virtues, but none of its vices, a laudable accomplishment indeed as Pixar continue to retain their own sense of identity in the presence of their powerful partner.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.