Even if the recent 3D-ification of Disney’s former glories represents the company’s cash-cow mentality, it’s refreshing to experience a Pixar film in the theater with a head and heart full of nostalgia instead of expectations. Not even opportunism can squander the pure delight of Monsters, Inc.’s meticulously detailed world of ragtag creatures. Despite the already good-as-gold Pixar name and massive box-office haul, Monsters, Inc. was mostly overshadowed in 2001 by the crass appeal of Shrek. Thankfully, this Pixar triumph’s doe-eyed charm, and balance of sentiment and wit, has allowed it to age better than Shrek’s obnoxious pop-culture hemorrhaging.
Monsters, Inc. is set in the immersive city of Monstroplis (the name being the least creative aspect of a well-captured, sprawling urban landscape), which runs on the energy extracted from the screams of children; the company Monsters, Inc. employs monster citizens, including “top scarer” Sulley (John Goodman), to enter doorways to children’s bedrooms and collect their shrieks. It’s a commonly held (and enforced) belief that children themselves, however, are poisonous—and when a little girl, Boo, sneaks into Monstropolis, unwitting caretakers Sulley and his one-eyed sidekick, Mike (Billy Crystal), find their routine broken as they try to return Boo to her bedroom.
The film greets audiences with an imaginative, anthropomorphized universe that mirrors human society, and yet functions autonomously as a perfect, malaise-curing form of escapist entertainment. Since the characters are so finely formed—in part due to Goodman and Crystal, brilliantly play off their public personas and imbue their characters with the perfect amount of tenderness and sarcasm, respectively—and the narrative unfolds at a cheerfully casual pace, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Monsters, Inc. is also a great example of high-concept filmmaking.
Due to its manic, goofball panache and unabashed cuteness (the cherubic Boo’s incomprehensible dialogue and sung little ditties are ineffably adorable), the film is often regarded as a mere pleasantry in the Pixar canon. But there’s real depth to how the story is anchored by the prescient and ever-evolving topical conceit of a city in an energy crisis. Also, there’s no representation of fear-mongering as clear and delightfully absurd as the president of Monsters, Inc. shouting, “There is nothing more toxic or deadly than a child.” Even the villainous Randall (Steve Buscemi) attempts to gain fame and solve the “scream shortage” by creating a suction device that would surely place him in the chorus of those who chant, “Drill, baby, drill!”
Monsters, Inc. often derives humor from pointed observations about bureaucracy, urbanity, and “kids these days” being desensitized. These are the reasons to see it again in the theater, and not for the unneeded 3D repackaging, though the kinetic “door chase” that climaxes the film does lend itself thrillingly to the new post-processed look. The frequently underwhelming 3D notwithstanding, Monster, Inc. is a throwback to when Pixar was a company that seemed to reach wry, goofball precision, as a purveyor of wit, imagination and ideas for children and adults, without the appearance of working so hard to be winning.