Extended Thoughts on ‘Monsters, Inc.’
Directed by Pete Docter
Written by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson
Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, James Coburn, Steve Buscemi
Here’s a question that has nagged at me for the last few years: what, really, is the difference between a film made by Pixar Animation Studios and a film made by DreamWorks Animation? (You could expand the question to include Blue Sky Studios, the company that works with 20th Century Fox and has made the Ice Age films, but I’m sticking with the Pixar-DreamWorks battle.) People continually divide the films of these studios, proclaiming that those movies of the former are automatically better than those of the latter. I may be wont to agree, but why? What separates these giants?
Both companies continue to leap forward in the technology of animating worlds and characters via computer, the images they create having progressed enormously in the last 15 or so years. Leaving aside the actual animation—and though a movie such as How To Train Your Dragon isn’t yet the norm, DreamWorks has proven its employees can conjure up wondrous visuals as well as Pixar ever could—then perhaps it comes down to casting. How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda are frequently considered among DreamWorks’ best films (and not because they’re not simply terrible or mediocre), but even here we have instances of stunt casting.
I admit to not being the biggest fan of either of these movies, and I’d argue that Kung Fu Panda suffers more from flashy celebrity casting. Maybe Jack Black is the best possible actor to voice Po, the lovable ninja-obsessed panda, but were Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, and Dustin Hoffman the best actors available to play their characters? Or were they cast simply because…well, hey, DreamWorks could get these big stars to be in their movies? Hopefully, someone who wasn’t already interested in the premise would get hooked in by the prospect of a few famous voices! (This, by the way, is a foolhardy proposition that I doubt ever produces a higher box-office take.)
The Kung Fu Panda films are, however, not the best example (or worst, depending on how you look at it) of stunt casting from DreamWorks. Whatever issues I may have with the two movies—neither are bad, but the stories don’t feel particularly special, offering only an overdose of novelty value—they’re light-years beyond some of DreamWorks’ worst offenders, like Shark Tale. Shark Tale was looked down upon back in 2004 for myriad reasons: it paled in comparison to Finding Nemo, another recent aquatic animated film; its animation was garish and caricaturish; its story was dull and uninvolving; its jokes landed with varying thuds and weren’t clever.
The list goes on, but the way the casting is incorporated into the animation style is the low point of Shark Tale. If you didn’t know that Will Smith was playing the lead character from hearing his voice or seeing what the character looked like on screen, the only explanation possible would be that you just exited that cave you lived in for the last 20 years, and your first order of business was inexplicably watching Shark Tale. Smith’s character looks egregiously like…well, Will Smith, and nothing like a fish. The same goes for the characters played by Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and, once again, Jolie. The only joke is that anyone thought this showy, unnecessary casting would be impressive enough to make people ignore the otherwise dull film in front of them.
Nevertheless, the more I think about the divide between Pixar and DreamWorks, the more I wonder if celebrity casting is merely a surface criticism. Let’s not forget that Pixar’s crown jewel of a franchise, the Toy Story films, features, as its lead, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Tom Hanks may not be Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but he’s never lost his hold on being this generation’s Jimmy Stewart. We can rightly applaud Pixar for not always casting the biggest possible celebrities, but they are not so daring as to avoid casting anyone even remotely well-known. We can say that Patton Oswalt or Ed Asner or Craig T. Nelson aren’t huge box-office draws, but they are known quantities. (And the Pixar films those men star in do include, in supporting roles, people like Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, and Samuel L. Jackson.) In some respects, I think the difference between Pixar and DreamWorks comes down to consistency along with a varying level of sometimes distracting homage being paid to, of all things, The Flintstones.
I’ll keep you in suspense on the latter point for just a bit, so consistency first. Pixar has not, as of this writing, chosen to churn out films once or sometimes twice a year for purely financial reasons. (The operative word being, of course, “purely.”) DreamWorks has, between October 1998 and today, released 25 animated films. Of those, 18 are computer-animated, 16 of which were released in the last 10 years. Pixar, however, has only released 13 computer-animated films between November 1995 and today. By keeping their projects so focused, not rushing to serve a wholly monetary need, and being dedicated to telling the best possible story in the best possible way, Pixar has been more consistent from the very beginning.
DreamWorks Animation films have made more money overall for its distributors by about $700 million, but consider the following. None of Pixar’s films have grossed, domestically, less than $162 million; 11 of DreamWorks Animation’s films have made that much. Also, only seven DreamWorks films have made more than $200 million, whereas 10 of Pixar’s films have crossed that threshold. For Pixar, consistency of all kinds is key, and has paid off over the last two decades, far more than it has for DreamWorks.
I bring the point of consistency up mainly because it appears to have sailed over most people’s heads. Over the last two years, a good number of folks online have fretted unnecessarily about the state of the union at Pixar. We’ve talked about this on the show, but it’s worth bringing up again so we can remember in a few years (and I’m confident enough about this to tell you to mark my words) that this kind of sky-is-falling mentality is foolish and serves to prove how short our collective attention spans have become. Because, by releasing Cars 2 and Brave, Pixar had dared to make films that didn’t match or exceed the quality of Toy Story 3 or Up or WALL-E, the end was declared nigh. (To be clear, I would not argue that either Cars 2 or Brave is as good as those three films. Cars 2 is, to this point, my least favorite Pixar film and the studio’s most juvenile, while Brave is a subtly ambitious and sometimes moving film, but one that doesn’t totally achieve all of its goals.) Can you remember a time when people worried over the state of DreamWorks Animation in this way? Though I’d strongly disagree with the frantic nattering that has occurred on the Internet in the last 18 months regarding Pixar’s quality, it’s the type of overreaction that can only come from a large, passionate fan base worried that what was once perfect will reveal itself to be forever human and, thus, crushingly flawed.
Before moving onto the Flintstones theory, I’d like to point out that people who bemoan Pixar’s apparent downward spiral have inordinately high expectations of the studio. (Whether or not those expectations are partially fueled by the excellence Pixar was creating in the late 2000s, I leave to another discussion.) During the fallout after Cars 2—a movie whose mammoth success I assumed was assured yet performed surprisingly poorly at the box office relative to other Pixar films—people slammed John Lasseter and his animation studio for no longer being original in their storytelling. I don’t mean to invalidate this specific complaint; I just don’t think it holds much water. If we assume that the next six films Pixar has in the pipeline according to Wikipedia—always a verifiable source, but humor me—come to fruition, then five of Pixar’s first 19 films will be sequels or prequels. (I am assuming that the untitled Pixar film slated to open in November of 2015 will be original.)
Three of Pixar’s so-called “unoriginal” films have already opened, and one is opening in roughly six months. I don’t need to compare this to the output from DreamWorks Animation, because we all know that DreamWorks’ animated sequels far surpass that from Pixar. (The Shrek series alone nearly equals Pixar’s “unoriginal” output.) What is worth noting is that, based solely on the consensus opinion, only one of Pixar’s sequels is considered poor. Some people, those who find the film lacking and lazy in its storytelling, may not be the biggest fans of Toy Story 3, but they’d probably say it’s Citizen Kane relative to Cars 2.
So, with only one bad sequel in existence, two that are widely considered among the best continuations in all of cinema, one that’s barely in pre-production, and one coming out soon, people need to ease off their all-encompassing attacks on Pixar. What they need, to quote Anton Ego, is some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective. I’m not thrilled about a Finding Nemo sequel, certainly. But I am thrilled about The Good Dinosaur, Bob Peterson’s directorial debut, coming out in 2014, about dinosaurs and humans co-existing; The Inside Out, Pete Docter’s next movie, coming out in 2015, taking place inside the human mind; and Lee Unkrich’s Dia de Los Muertos-themed film coming out in 2016. I may have to wait for a while, but I can be patient. Everyone else should follow suit.
Moving aside from the idea that Pixar is relying too heavily on preexisting characters and franchises, the biggest divide between their films and DreamWorks Animation’s films is the Flintstones factor. Here, it becomes more challenging and subtle to demarcate one group of films from the other. The Flintstones was revolutionary and influential when it aired in the 1960s. In the same way that it would not exist if not for The Honeymooners, The Simpsons likely would’ve taken a different form had it not been for Fred, Wilma, Barney, and the rest of the gang in Bedrock. However, The Flintstones relied on enormously hoary pun-driven gags, especially when celebrities of the era appeared on or were referenced by the show.
Rock Hudson may have been a big star in the 1960s, but in the time of Bedrock, he was known as Rock Pile or Quarry Hudstone. The same went for Gary Granite (Cary Grant), Stony Curtis (Tony Curtis), and Ann-Margrock (Ann-Margret). Comedy, as with most things in popular culture, is subjective, but I’d argue that this kind of humor is only worthy of a chuckle, and it’s crippled by being dated. Now, as you may have heard on the show, Mike, as ever, disagrees that comparing Pixar films to The Flintstones is anything aside from a high compliment. However, that kind of punny comedy, which I find so dull and undercooked, appears in all Flintstones episodes, as the show’s writers would constantly devise ways that the everyday foibles of the working man in the modern world could be twisted and filtered through the world of walking, talking cavemen.
The Flintstones, putting it plainly, is a show based on the familiar. Its jokes are as old as Methuselah, as it goes with most (though not all) three-camera sitcoms from I Love Lucy all the way to The Big Bang Theory. I realize that The Flintstones was a technical achievement, a major milestone in the history of animation. That said, I don’t think most of the Hanna-Barbera shows of the 1960s and 1970s hold up to serious scrutiny; here, I don’t even mean to slam the comically unshifting backgrounds when Fred and Barney are running away from or to a threat. It’s the writing that’s fossilized, which might be appropriate considering the show’s setting. However, it doesn’t make the humor any more profound or incisive. The Flintstones may have been a landmark in animation on primetime television, but its of-the-time technical prowess doesn’t erase that the characters brought to life by hand were given painfully uninspired and rote dialogue and jokes to recite.
Such basic gags are, in some way, the comic cornerstone of many computer-animated films. Skewering Western civilization by translating it into the world of toys, bugs, fish, superheroes, fairy-tale characters, and so on is a foundational aspect of these movies. Pixar is less prone to placing boring, hacky punchlines in its works, but in movies like A Bug’s Life and Cars, the filmmakers aren’t able to resist the lazy joke. The gags are slightly funnier in the former film, if only because the cleverness isn’t all the filmmakers were using in hopes that the movie would work. In Cars, though, it’s hard to excuse celebrity cameos from Darrell Waltrip and Bob Costas when they’re called Darrell Cartrip and Bob Cutlass. I hesitate to say this, but when I think of such jokes, I think “Pixar should be better than that.” The more emphatic these too-clever-by-half jokes are, the more distant the characters become in the respective movie. And as much as I wish it wasn’t the case, I fear that’s something of a problem with Monsters, Inc. This film, Docter’s directorial debut, is fairly funny, exceptionally animated, and mostly entertaining. However, when I compare it to movies that it preceded, movies like The Incredibles and Up, I find that this 2001 effort doesn’t hold up so well.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, upon first seeing it, Monsters, Inc. felt more like a DreamWorks Animation entry, but the overreliance on real-world jabbing via clever gags made it so this film always offered diminished returns. (I imagine that when someone came up with the line, “I remember the first time I laid eye on you,” others at Pixar found it fantastically witty. For me, it barely earns a polite smile.) Because of this, I’m not as able to connect with Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan as they desperately try to hide the existence of a human child nicknamed Boo from the denizens of Monstropolis. I’ll grant the film its smartest flourish: just as we always fear at a young age, monsters do scare kids, but only because it’s their job. In fact, monsters are deathly afraid of kids, who are supposedly toxic to touch. That conceit is filled with more wit and intelligence than most of the movie’s jokes. I wondered, though, if revisiting the film in its 3D presentation would change my point of view. When I saw Monsters, Inc. in the fall of 2001, at age 17, I liked it to a point, but was left wanting. Would 11 years, a healthy dose of maturity, and general adulthood change my tune?
Sadly, no. I’ve always ranked Monsters, Inc. right above A Bug’s Life near the bottom of my list of Pixar favorites, and I don’t see much reason to shift things around. Maybe I’d hoped that what happened to me with Finding Nemo—a movie I liked when I first saw it, but now wholeheartedly love—would reoccur here. Both films are heavily about parenting, so I can’t chalk it up to being an unfeeling, childless adult. In fact, the strongest element of Monsters, Inc., even though it takes too long to build, is the relationship Sulley has with Boo. The close-knit friendship between Mike and Sulley is also captured pretty well, being fair. There’s a subtle yet important difference in the chemistry between Billy Crystal and John Goodman. It’s unlike what Tom Hanks and Tim Allen or Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres have onscreen, specific to Crystal and Goodman being in the same room while recording all of their dialogue. The camaraderie is present, and it’s the one thing keeping me excited about the Monsters University prequel. Mike and Sulley may not be as well-drawn as Woody and Buzz or Marlin and Dory, but the back-and-forth the men voicing them have is undeniable.
And by the final 30 minutes, the connection Sulley has with Boo is equally undeniable, crystallized by the forced trip he makes to the one of the darkest, bleakest places on Earth. When Mike and Sulley are exiled to the Himalayas by menacing chameleon Randall Boggs and the big boss Henry J. Waternoose (the late James Coburn, doing his best in a totally predictable yet visually disturbing role), it’s a weird diversion and excuse to incorporate Pixar’s lucky charm John Ratzenberger into the film. While I did laugh at Ratzenberger’s dialogue, thanks to his charming blowhard-like delivery, the most powerful moment in Monsters, Inc. comes right before his Abominable Snowman appears. Immediately as Mike and Sulley are kicked out of Monstropolis, they land in the snow about ten feet from the imposing and closed silver door from whence they came. Mike tries to regain his bearings, but Sulley runs back to the door, opening and closing it repeatedly in hopes that his workplace will magically appear on the other side. Goodman’s primal shouting of the word “No,” the death-knell sound of the door slamming, and the slowly tracking camera all make for an excellent and unforgettable moment, if one that’s too short.
Also, though it’s been said many times, the climactic sequence, where Randall gives chase to Mike, Sulley, and Boo, via the endless series of bedroom closet doors in the Monsters, Inc. warehouse, is dizzyingly action-packed. (I do wonder if the movie existed as an excuse to get to this moment.) In this scene, and only this scene, the 3D upgrade—about which more later—isn’t just a perfunctory distraction. The camera is framed, in a number of shots, directly behind Mike and Sulley as they soar down, up, and around the warehouse through the pneumatic rails on which the multitudes of doors hang. As such, the physical feeling that you’re on a ride with these monsters is even more palpable and thrilling in 3D. But any amount of thrills, in any dimension, is relegated to the third act of Monsters, Inc., which is almost obnoxiously farcical in its first hour. The setup and payoff isn’t amateurish by any means, but the pacing is so fast, it topples over into being manic, especially once Mike and Sulley bring Boo back to Monsters, Inc. so they can get her back to her home.
It’s not that a fast-paced family film can’t develop characters while focusing on plot mechanics and world-building. Once we discuss the Toy Story trilogy on the podcast, especially the first entry, we’ll be able to analyze how brevity can be more than the soul of wit. As with those films, the casting in Monsters, Inc. is rarely stunt-like, and fills in gaps the script doesn’t. We know the type of character Mike is because of Billy Crystal’s shticky but solid voice work, and the same goes for Goodman’s gruff and lovable Sulley. The world they inhabit could be rendered fascinating in more than just a visual sense—much was made, justly, of the detail visible in each hair on Sulley’s massive, furry body. Instead, the filmmakers, who challenged themselves on some levels, chose the easy way out when it came to building the world verbally. (I would note, however, that I think there’s not nearly enough expansion of Monstropolis here. The minute details are rendered excellently, but the broader strokes feel slapdash.)
I realize that maybe I’m in the minority on that level, but Monsters, Inc. doesn’t work for me on the whole because it’s too shtick-reliant. Crystal’s influence likely didn’t have any bearing on the script; still, he’s well-chosen considering the tenor of humor in the film. There’s a vaudevillian aspect to the mountain of lies Mike and Sulley try to pass off as reality in the second act, specifically the fake musical they pretend they’re staging to explain away a random, hissed directive Mike lobs at his big, hairy buddy. Such old-school methods aren’t inherently dull or boring; what they are is rooted in a specific period of history, instead of being or feeling timeless.
I agree that the concept of this movie is fittingly timeless, but the execution is sometimes dull and staid. It’s more likable and conventional than Brave, for example, yet because the script isn’t nearly as ambitious, I find myself more let down. Again, this is the retroactive problem I have (and I think others may have) with Pixar films. It’s hard to go back to their older works and not hold them against the newer efforts. The positive angle is to acknowledge that the men and women at Pixar Animation Studios, in a more aggressively obvious way than the people who work at DreamWorks Animation, have matured and grown as animators and filmmakers. The flip side, though, is that their more immature, juvenile efforts (specifically A Bug’s Life, Cars, and Monsters, Inc.) pale in comparison to the thoughtful films they’ve made recently.
This is half of my concern with Monsters University, that literally placing the characters at a time in their lives when, as with humans, they act in a self-consciously “bad” way will provide Pixar with an excuse to be as puerile as possible, leaving audiences with a potentially raunchy (Disney-style, of course), but not particularly memorable time. I’m not sure I see the value in Pixar making a film that may well endorse the concept of regressing further into youth. (I will here point out the obvious: this movie opens in June and may be the opposite of what I’m imagining. I’ll be happy to eat crow here and on the show should that be the case.) Though I don’t think this is true overall, by releasing Cars 2 directly after a series of four disparate yet intellectually fertile films, Pixar furthered the notion that they were moving backwards. I still don’t think we can say it definitively as Pixar progresses in this decade; even if Brave had come immediately after Toy Story 3 instead of Cars 2, I think people still would doubt the studio’s magic touch. However, Monsters University actively seems like Pixar is happily jumping backwards, not forwards, in their storytelling, partly because of the setting, and partly because it’s…shudder…a prequel.
I’m troubled with prequels in general because they tend to sap dramatic tension just by existing. Yes, it’s clever to set a movie at a learning institution that’s like the human world’s version, with monsters in their place. And yes, it’s clever to make Mike and Sulley college freshmen (freshmonsters?) who hate each other! In fact, you could say it’s wacky! But we know they’ll be best of friends by the end of the film. We know Randall Boggs is a scoundrel who won’t be brought to long-lasting justice. And we know that whatever happens to the other returning characters in this new movie will likely have no profound effect that was referenced in the original film. So where’s the suspense? Is forgettable fun enough? Pixar, in its entirety, may not have moved on from more childish things, or more childish ways of telling its stories. However, when you look at movies like Ratatouille and Toy Story 3, you look at the product of people who have turned the corner. If each of their films will not display such maturity, they need to be awfully entertaining. Monsters, Inc. doesn’t hit that plateau. I hope its follow-up will reverse the trend.
Finally, the 3D upconversion. I fail to see the logic behind pretty much every decision Disney made in regards to the Monsters, Inc. re-release specifically. 3D re-releases have such a short shelf life, so it’s not even worth Disney’s time. Re-releases on the whole, however, are another matter. The House of Mouse got mighty greedy after The Lion King did amazingly well in September of 2011, or, for the less charitable, they got greedier. The assumption was not just that Disney could make nearly $100 million at the box office with future 3D re-releases, but that any of their animated films would garner such mass demand. Now, I’ve said so on Twitter, but I’m happy to further stake my claim to the idea that The Little Mermaid, the next film on the upconversion assembly line, will do even better The Lion King, by a bit. Sure, there’s competition from The Smurfs 2 and Planes, as well as the sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the Attack of the Clones re-release. But I think it’s wrong to assume that family films like these, even a follow-up to something as funny as Cloudy, would stand a threat against the 25th anniversary of one of the most beloved animated films ever made.
Now, it’s hard to say why only The Lion King, among Disney’s recent re-releases, accrued so much cash, and Beauty and the Beast made half as much money at a presumably dead time of year at the box office, mid-January. However, I think there’s enough pent-up demand to see Ariel, Sebastian, and Ursula back on the big screen, from far more than families. I don’t really share the nostalgia some people my age have about the film, because…well, The Little Mermaid is a very good movie. You can be an adult and still enjoy it. Nostalgia need not apply; movies you can appreciate when you’re older typically don’t require a wistful feeling for the past, though that can enhance your experience. You don’t need kids to enjoy The Little Mermaid, nor to have the incentive to see the movie for the first time in decades. People with and without kids will show up. The demand is, and has been, present for a while.
And that’s what it all comes down to: supply and demand. When The Lion King came back to theaters in the fall of 2011, it was not yet available on Blu-ray, but would be…after it left theaters. The film’s DVD release was in the so-called “Disney vault” and shown on the Disney Channel infrequently. Connecting the 3D re-release to The Lion King being available for the first time in a high-definition format was a shrewd marketing move, one Disney hasn’t been able to replicate again. Even this past fall, when they tried to do the same with Finding Nemo, the gambit didn’t pan out as successfully. Part of this could be because the Blu-ray release was still a few months away. What I think matters, though, is the lack of serious demand.
It’s even more demonstrable when you look at Monsters, Inc., a movie that’s been on Blu-ray for over 3 years. Because it’s from Pixar, Monsters, Inc. was never tossed into the Disney vault; hell, you could buy the 2009 Blu-ray right now on Amazon. The skewed logic is that by re-releasing Monsters, Inc., Disney and Pixar could remind us of the existence of Monsters University, and drum up interest. The low box-office take proves, however, that this scheme didn’t work. (As a note, I didn’t get a trailer for the new film during my showing. Instead, I saw a fake commercial for the university in question, which is kind of cute and, again, too clever. But that cleverness doesn’t sell the movie correctly, especially since it leads to an admittedly detailed website that leaves off one important note: when the movie opens.)
Marketing aside, is the 3D applied to these 2D films necessary, or just a means to a hopefully bountiful financial end? Maybe one day, some studio will figure out how to make this vast library of films pop visually in 3D in ways they hadn’t before. It hasn’t happened yet, and my hope does not spring eternal. And here’s the thing: so many different genres have been brought to the silver screen in the last few years via 3D re-releases. We’ve seen space operas like Star Wars, epic dramas like Titanic, and animated films like Monsters, Inc. get the 3D treatment. What frustrates me most about these re-releases is that studios see the numbers and assume that if one of these movies is successful, it’s directly correlated to the 3D upconversion, that audiences are responding solely to the new format.
This isn’t remotely true, especially for animated films. The Walt Disney Company, as recently as the early 1990s, proved that re-releasing their own movies with no frills was successful and cheap, and a good way to engender popularity for various stories and characters. They didn’t need to gussy up The Rescuers, Pinocchio, or 101 Dalmatians in a new visual style. All they needed to do was present the movies in their original format, maybe tweaked a bit to improve a shot here or a cel there. Disney sees the success of The Lion King in 3D and it’s as if they’re too modest to assume that a good number of their old movies are landmarks of entertainment. People didn’t storm the multiplex to see Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa in 3D. They went because they love The Lion King.
And I don’t mean to say that people, by not flooding theaters to see Monsters ,Inc., don’t love Sulley, Mike, and Boo. People just don’t love them that much. Monsters, Inc. is not Pixar’s finest film; I dare say that’s a widely held thought. As such, I don’t know that many people desired to check the film out again, for an added charge. I wanted to reevaluate it after a few years away from Monstropolis. Most people don’t have that itch to scratch. Though some people, like my co-host Mike, would place it higher among their films, Monsters, Inc. is perhaps not seen as Pixar’s most spectacular piece of work. People aren’t as nostalgic for the adventures of monsters as they are for the adventures of toys, fish, or robots. Occupying a comfortable, almost complacent, spot among the studio’s filmography. Monsters, Inc. is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s simple. Simple, complacent, comfortable: these are words I associate with DreamWorks Animation movies. I recoil at associating such terms with Pixar, and though I don’t recoil at Monsters, Inc., I get a nasty taste in my mouth when I consider that this is the closest they’ve ever come to replicating DreamWorks Animation’s quantitative, not qualitative, success.