Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Monster’s Inc. (2001)

This is the fourth part of an eleven part (maybe twelve part) series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

The closest I ever came to seeing a Pixar movie in the theaters was in the November of 2001, when I sat in the back of a crowded theater scheduled to screen the film Monsters, Inc.  About ten minutes later I had seen what I had arrived for, the trailer for Star Wars: Episode 2- Attack of the Clones which I’d heard was attached to the Pixar film.  Satisfied with the trailer I got up, left the auditorium and proceeded to the screen next door which was playing the film I had bought a ticket for, an immensely forgettable Jet Li vehicle called The One.  At the time I had no idea that the movie the Star Wars trailer was attached to was anything other than a typical kid’s movie.  The poster for the film did say “from the Academy-Award winning makers of Toy Story,” but I’m not sure anyone really knew just what that meant at the time.  Pixar hadn’t proven with A Bug’s Life that they could be wildly successful when working outside of their signature franchise.

Worldwide, Monsters Inc. would go on to make more than half of a billion dollars at the box office, which seems like a success on paper but it would not become the iconic animated film of 2001.  That honor would be taken away from Pixar by their future arch-rival, Dreamworks Animation, who released a little film called Shrek.  On paper the two films seem comparable, but while Monster’s Inc. was a solidly performing family film, Shrek was a pop culture phenomenon; it outgrossed Pixar’s film domestically, gained almost as much critical attention, and to add insult to injury Shrek is the film that would go on to win the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Film.  To Pixar fans, Dreamworks would always be a super villain, not because they necessarily hate their films on any objective level, but because they just kind of seemed like douchebags.  To put it in terms of another crazy cult, Dreamworks were the Microsoft to Pixar’s Apple (a comparison that’s all the more cogent given that Pixar’s CEO at the time just happened to be Steve Jobs).  While Pixar was seen as a group of earnest tech geeks trying to make great stories, Dreamworks came off like a group of guys in suits who cynically researched the right combination of talking animal and celebrity voice actors to maximize profits.  In other words: those guys were in it for the money, man.

I tease the Pixar fanboys a little bit there, but to be fair their beef seems pretty legitimate, at least if Shrek is any indication.  I actually saw Shrek when it came to HBO not long after it left theaters, and to put it bluntly, Shrek fucking sucks.  I’m not going to go into all the details as to why I hated Shrek, but it was definitely an off-putting experience, in fact Shrek is probably a big part of why I’ve been ignoring Pixar and children’s movies in general all of these years.  At this point in time, Monsters, Inc. is clearly the better respected of the two movies, but it wasn’t as clear at the time.  Few critics will admit it now, but Shrek was most definitely a critical darling back in 2001.  Roger Ebert gave it four stars, it got a solid 89% on Rotten Tomatoes (which is only 6% less than Monsters, Inc., and both of those scores are skewed by more recent reviews), and there were quotes floating around the film’s advertising like “it is one of those rare films that can appeal to everyone who has half a funny bone.”

More importantly Shrek was the movie that seemed more like something an adult could appreciate, after all Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy were funny people and it seemed like the movie could have worked simply as a comedy if nothing else.  However, I quickly learned that I apparently didn’t have “half a funny bone,” because Shrek proved to be an incredible waste of my time.  The critics had lied to me, or perhaps more accurately, they’d cried wolf to me.  After my less than stellar experience listening to the critics about Shrek, I began to take most critical praise toward children’s animated films with a big grain of salt.  I decided that if a handful of dumb references to other movies were these critics’ idea of “appealing to adults as well as kids” they were simply operating on different standards than I was.  As far as I could tell they were just advising parents as to which silly children’s movie was the most tolerable, it would be a while before I would come to see a difference between Pixar and their rival in this regard.

Shrek did such a good job at dominating the pop culture in 2001 that I barely knew anything about Monsters, Inc. prior to my viewing, in fact I knew even less about it than I did about A Bug’s Life.  To me, Monsters, Inc. has always just been “that one with the blue bear and the green cyclops.”  As such it was interesting to notice that this was, at its heart, a buddy movie.  Of course Pixar had seemingly already explored that territory in Toy Story, but that was a riff on a different kind of buddy movie, the 48 Hours variety of buddy movie where the characters become friends after initially disliking each other.  This buddy film seems to be more closely based in the model developed by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the “Road to…” series in the 40s, in which an established long time friendship is (lightly) put to the test over the course of an adventure.  In fact the whole movie has kind of a 40s/50s lounge entertainment motif that begins with the Saul Bass inspired opening credits sequence, extends into the film’s jazzy score, and is confirmed by Randy Newman’s Oscar winning song “If I Didn’t Have You.”

The core friendship at the center of the film is made quite believable in large part because of the voice performances by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.  Goodman was perfect to play the slow speaking but thoughtful blue collar Sully but it’s Crystal that sorts of steals the show as the fast speaking wisecracker Mike Wazowski.  In fact I think this is probably the coolest voice cast that I’ve seen from Pixar; James Coburn and Steve Buscemi are also cool character actors that work really well for their respective characters.  It probably doesn’t hurt that the actors are all working with some of the best written dialogue that Pixar has delivered up to this point.  This is probably the first movie they’ve made which pretty much functions as a straight up dialogue-based comedy, and while I wouldn’t say I was laughing uproariously through it, I did find most of the jokes to be genuinely clever and well timed.

The Pixar guys seem to have a lot of fun crafting a monster-world for the film, though I must say this is part of a trend in these movies that I’m getting a little concerned about.  Everyone remembers the cartoon “The Flintstones,” a work that was thoroughly dedicated to the one joke that everything in the Stone-Age was just like real 50s suburbia… except made out of rock.  It’s a process I’ll call “Bedrockification” and there’s been a lot of it in the four Pixar movies I’ve seen so far whether they’re creating a toy world where “the attic” is the afterlife or a bug world where a box of animal crackers is used as a traveling circus wagon.  This is taken to a dangerous peak here with just about every scene bringing some little twist to the table about how monsters live harmoniously in a city.  In this particular movie, I actually rather enjoyed this, but if these movies become increasingly reliant upon this kind of thing I feel like I’m going to get sick of it fast.

Visually the film is pretty good, at least on a design level.  Pixar’s animation technology hasn’t really advanced through these movies as fast as I guess I thought it would.  There are certain things that the film really animates well and you can kind of tell what elements of their tech they spent the most time improving for the film.  Sully’s fur, for example, is extremely well rendered throughout the film.  Other elements though, like Wazowski’s Medusa-like girlfriend, still just seem kind of dated.  I’m not even sure I’d say it looks all that much better than A Bug’s Life, though a side-by-side comparison might dissuade me of that impression.  Overall though, the tech wasn’t distracting and probably was well within (perhaps even exceeding) the expectations of the film’s time.

Of course this wouldn’t be a Pixar film without some plot-holes and half-baked explanations about how elements of the world function.  The film’s central conceit of a city powered by children’s screams seems rather contrived, but this is a fantasy plot so I realize you need to just go along with things like that to a certain extent; but it does still bring certain questions to mind like “how does the real world not catch on to this wave of home invasions that seemingly threaten their children?”  You could maybe justify this as the result of parents dismissing the children’s stories as mere nightmares, but after a generation or two you’d think they’d catch on.  The notion of the monsters being afraid of the children for some reason is a little harder to swallow.  You’d think after a few years of scream-energy collecting it would become pretty clear that there hasn’t been anyone killed by being touched by a child and they never really explain what crazy logic has led these monsters to believe that simple objects like socks are going to hurt them.  Is this a cover-up by the monster-government?  Maybe, but what’s the motive for such a lie?  You’d think the scream-energy industry would want their power-source to seem as clean and safe as possible rather than the opposite.

Those are questionable elements, but what I’m a lot more concerned about is the way that the film plays fast and loose with the trans-dimensional doors during its third act.  Particularly I question the way that sully was able to return from banishment so quickly by simply waiting for another monster to invade a bedroom in one of the homes in a town near the mountain that he was banished to.  How many monsters are there invading this world at a given time?  There must be a hell of a lot if Sully can count on them invading a room in the middle of such a remote place, and if these invasions are that widespread that just brings back the question of how the world’s adults haven’t caught on to this monster invasion.  What’s more, it brings up the question of how effective a punishment banishment can be if it’s that easy to escape from it.  Worse than that is the way the door travel becomes even more confusing in the film’s climactic action sequence, in which they seem to be able to travel between doors pretty much at will and come out wherever the hell they want even though it had basically been established earlier that this travel system would require traveling all the way to another child’s bedroom in order to leave through another door.  That’s unfortunate, because that chase scene through the doors is otherwise hands down the most ambitious chase scene Pixar has attempted so far and it’s completely undercut by some really shaky logic within the travel system at its heart.

While these plot issues are there, I had bigger issues with some of the character motivations.  In particular the moive sort of depends on the notion that Sully would form a sort of surrogate-father relationship with Boo, which frankly seems like bullshit to me.  Perhaps if the film had given the character some more time with the kid I’d believe it, but he seems to only spend a day and a half with it before entering “I would die for you” territory, and he probably spends half of that time believing that the kid was dangerous.  But as unbelievable as that development was, I was a lot more disappointed with the simplistic motives of the villains in the movie.  I certainly thought that Randall Boggs and Henry J. Waternoose III looked cool, and Boggs’ invisibility power was well utilized throughout the film, but what drives these characters beyond simple greed?  Nothing, and after the three dimensional and sympathetic villain from Toy Story 2, that’s a disappointment.  It’s made especially disappointing because there would have been depth to them if the filmmakers had bothered to dig for it.  For example they could have examined a genuine desire on the part of these villains to end Monstropolis’ energy crisis, or they could have better explored the view that monsters have of human children and whether there’s really a difference between their new mode of scream collection and the old ways.  Instead the film seems to be content with making them simplistic evil corporate villains and I can’t help but see it as a missed opportunity.

I don’t want to come off as nitpicky about all of these things, it’s just that I really am seeing potential in these movies now and the people making them just seem to cut a lot of logical corners that have been holding them back and bogging them down with a lot of flaws.  I also don’t want to make it sound like I’m dismissing the film because of all these things either, because I’m not, in fact I rather liked the movie in general.  While the film did have as many large logic holes and the Toy Story films, I felt like it didn’t have nearly as many of the small scale mistakes like Toy Story 2’s karaoke ending and it was nicely devoid of annoying characters like the Dinosaur from that series.  In general, this seems to be the most mature film that Pixar has put out so far, at least in tone if not necessarily in subtext.  This feels less like a kid’s movie than their first three films, possibly because it has two adult lead characters at its center and both of them behave like adults within a somewhat recognizable society.  So while I didn’t find anything as interesting here as Toy Story 2’s moral dilemma, I still enjoyed it the whole way through in a way that I didn’t with Pixar’s first two films.

The Short Program: For the Birds

What I would have seen back in 2001 if I had stayed in that theater a few minutes after that Star Wars trailer was Pixar’s first new short film since A Bug’s Life, a three minute slapstick piece called For the Birds.  Like a lot of Pixar’s shorts at this point, it has no real dialogue and is set in a single location.  That location is a powerline that a number of small fat birds are perched upon.  Their birdlike rest is interrupted when a vaguely retarded looking blue crane chooses to sit between them, forcing the powerline to bend into sort of a “V” shape under its weight.  The small birds, none too happy about this, proceed to peck at the crane’s talons until it falls.  This snaps the cable back up with “hilarious” results.

Consensus about this short seems to be pretty positive amongst the Pixar community and it also won the studio its third and final Osacr in the Best Animated Short category.  I however, found it rather minor and disappointing.  I certainly didn’t find the birds in the film to be nearly as charming as other Pixar short subjects like the lamp from Luxo, Jr. or the snowman from Knick Knack (more on that one in our next installment), and the basic gag at the center seems like little more than something from a second rate Road Runner cartoon.  I especially thought it was disappointing after the brilliant Geri’s Game, a short that had a much more clever premise at its center as well as some genuine pathos.  While we were able to feel genuine sympathy from Geri’s loneliness in that earlier short, the crane that gets the last laugh here doesn’t come off as being a whole lot more relatable than the birds that were trying to peck it off.  Also, while I don’t think Geri’s Game was a lot longer than this was, it sure felt like a lot more happened in it what with all the various reversals within the chess game.  Notice also how Geri was able to one up his “opponent” by outsmarting him, while this crane just literally just stumbled into his victory.

The short does get some credit for its animation quality, but even that doesn’t seem like all that big a leap forward.  It’s certainly impressive that they were able to make the birds’ feathers move so realistically, and the background (though simple in nature) didn’t need to be out for focus the way it was in Geri’s Game.  However, the power lines themselves didn’t always look particularly naturalistic.  Also, as real as the birds’ feathers seemed, I found that their talons (especially the crane’s talons) looked pretty fake and distracting.  The sound also could have been better designed, the music seemed rather basic and uninspired and I also found that the crane’s honking noises were annoying and worked against the building of any sympathy for the thing.

All in all, this is probably the weakest Pixar short since Tin Toy, but that isn’t to say it’s a horrible piece of work.  After all, the main function of this thing is to provide a couple of cute easy gags before the start of a main attraction, and this does mostly serve that function competently enough.  Still, I can’t help but be disappointed with it given how much more they were able to do with similar goals in other shorts, especially given the extra experience and goodwill they had to work with here.

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