Watching Monsters, Inc. after a lamentable gap of twenty years is akin to catching up with a close friend you once adored and loved, and deep down still do, but with whom you’ve had little to no contact since you saw them last.
As you begin to get re-acquainted, it all comes rushing back – how much you like them, how their presence is a soothing balm on the worst of days and how they are funnier, more caring and more emotionally affecting that you recalled.
It’s a delightful reawakening and so it is with Monsters Inc., a film which came out in 2001, a scant six years after the Pixar feature film that started it all, Toy Story, and which is even better than you remember it.
Admittedly we have come to expect rich thoughtfulness, emotionally resonant storytelling and affectingly full characterisation from Pixar but when you take in Monsters, Inc. in all its funny and moving glory, you can appreciate that this film, along, of course with Toy Story is where the magic all began.
What’s so clever about this animation gem is that it starts out reasonably lightly and brightly, taking us to Monstropolis, a city full to the brim with monsters of all shapes and sizes, all of which depend for energy on the power generated by the screams of young children.
These screams are harvested, in ethically dubious fashion, by an elite team of scarers, all of which spend their shifts leaping or sneaking out of closet doors to surprise kids and generate a fulsome enough scream that the power cylinders fill up fast and full.
While you might assume we have more to fear from the monsters than they from us, the accepted wisdom is that humans are toxic and that even a sock statically clinging to your back can kill you (and if it does, woe betide you because the hazmat-suited team from the Child Detection Agency (CDA) will descend upon you and “23-19” you like there is no tomorrow).
No one has ever seen this happen but it’s just accepted that this is how it happens and that children are scary and evil and cannot be allowed anywhere near the scream-dependent good citizens of Monstropolis.
That’s until one day the lead scarer, James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), goes through a door left mysteriously behind after shift’s end, curious why it would be there at all, and finds himself followed back by a sweet young girl he nicknames Boo (Mary Gibbs) who resolutely will not stay on her side of the door.
Sulley is naturally terrified at first, as is his friend from childhood and member of their scaring team of two, Michael “Mike” Wakowski (Billy Crystal), both of whom are convinced their worlds are going to collapse in on themselves because Boo is where she simply shouldn’t be.
But, and this is the joy of Monsters Inc. (2001), while she does completely rip the status quo end from end, it’s in a very good way, until you are Sulley’s rival Randall (Steve Buscemi) who is up to no good, no good at all, and she ends up transforming Monstropolis by completely changing first Sulley and then Mike.
The heart of this wondrously, affectingly good film is the relationship that develops between quiet, unassuming Sulley and Boo who calls him “Kitty” and who quickly works out that he is one of the good guys and will protect and look after her.
It’s a tear-triggering joy watching these two relate to each other, especially seeing Sulley change from a monster who thinks human are toxic to someone who realises they are actually quite delightful and that maybe, just maybe, it might be better to harvest the far more intense power of their laughs than their screams.
As Sulley has his worldview changed and changed dramatically, the narrative moves from goofy and whimsical, underpinned by some fearsomely good worldbuilding, to earnest and intense with the race on to keep Boo safe, and stop Randall’s nefarious schemes all while inadvertently changing Monstropolis forever.
While that’s all very serious, and executed as perfectly and poignantly as you’d expect from director Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out, Soul), Monsters, Inc also manages to be very, very funny.
Much of that humour, both verbal and physical, comes courtesy of Crystal who imbues Wakowski with a wisecracking, quip-heavy lovability and energetic enthusiasm that stands in perfect contrast to Sulley’s more gentle, caring, thoughtful persona.
Mike injects much-needed levity into every scene he’s in, such as early in the film when the two longtime friends attempt to spirit Boo, disguised as a small adorable monster-ette, back into Monsters, Inc. (“We Scare Because We Care”) in order to get her through her closet door and back into her bedroom.
The lobby is swarming with CDA agents, and alarmed by Boo’s presence, Mike and Sulley stammer out an explanation for why they are at work at all, with Sulley awkwardly saying that Monster Boo is his cousin’s sister’s kid, an odd claim that Mike saves by saying “Yes! It’s bring your obscure relative to work day!”
It’s but one example of many where Mike’s hilarious levity and Sulley’s soulful empathy work beautifully and affectingly together, giving Monsters, Inc. both light and dark, slapstick and serious, manic and meditative.
It’s a powerfully resonant mix that means the film is never less than deeply impacting, whether you’re laughing uproariously at the idea that the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman are all exiled monsters or tearing up because Sulley has just gone out all to save Boo from Randall’s dark and terrible hands and as a result may never see her again.
And that final, exquisitely well-formed scene? One of the most finely-realised and emotionally rich endings in cinema, encapsulating everything that makes Monsters, Inc. an unassailably good buoyant, affecting delight.
Pixar rarely puts a foot wrong but in Monsters, Inc, we have it at its absolute best, deeply warming your heart and making you laugh in equal measure, all while telling a story so perfectly formed and manifestly well executed that it stands as one of the best animated films ever made, proof positive that it’s the good things in life that make the world go around and that profoundly and richly power our lives in ways that those who think otherwise (looking at you Randall) will never every appreciate.