Pete Docter may be my favorite of the Pixar directors. He helmed some of my favorite of the studio’s stable: Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out. Watching Monsters, Inc., I am reminded how much worldbuilding it requires, right from the jump. I would argue that it remains one of Pixar’s most imaginative movies to date. It does not take place in our world – let alone a bedroom or sunny backyard – but rather delves into a parallel dimension, populated by wildly outlandish characters. The characters dip into our world frequently, but the landscape virtually encompasses the entire globe. That is an immense undertaking, and a huge risk. That said, Pixar’s success with its first three films laid the groundwork for them being able to present something so “out-there,” and, thus, continue with even more radical ideas in the future. After all, Pixar was launched on a wild, unprecedented venture, so it’s not exactly surprising.
What was surprising, however – apart from the dynamic worldbuilding and physical comedy (we’ll come back to that) – was the depth of the movie’s theme. Of course, at four films into the studio’s collection, depicting deep themes was clearly their M.O., weaving these subjects delicately so it reaches audiences emotionally, regardless of age, but not coming off as preachy. And, like with A Bug’s Life, the message struck me a lot harder and a lot more powerfully as an adult. As Sully summarizes during the film’s conclusion:
“…laughter is ten times more powerful than screams…”
The impact of this statement gets overlooked, I think, because it’s worked into a surface-level joke, as Sully jovially knocks Mike’s overconfidence down a peg. It encapsulates, though, what we’ve seen visually demonstrated throughout the entire movie.
Happiness is more powerful than fear.
That’s not to say that fear doesn’t have it’s own reasonable power over us. Screams do, in fact, very directly power Monstropolis; each time Boo screams and cries, it clearly sets off a chain reaction to every device in the vicinity. I would argue that it’s fear which drives Mr. Waternoose to his rash, villainous decisions. Fear can drive us all to do things as trivial and rational as telling a white lie, to abandoning logic altogether and potentially cause harm to ourselves and others. That very reliance on fear – a belief that fear keeps us safe and protected – prohibits us from finding joy. It’s not surprising, then, that Docter would go on to later direct a film that explores these emotions further, by personifying them into the main characters.
Futhermore, the “scare demonstration” sequence forces Sully to confront what it is he does and addresses the theme almost to the letter. After accidentally frightening our adorable little heroine, Boo, Sully attempts to explain, his rambling including the lines: “Don’t be scared. That wasn’t real, it was just…” But he can’t quite find the right words, because it was real. It deeply impacts Boo (and all of us, amirite?) and while Sully cares about the company and how they will find energy if the company goes under, he gets a good, hard look at the moral line and makes a choice not to let fear drive his actions.
That sequence still brings me to tears.
On the not-so-great side of things… the physical comedy. Yeesh. For context: most of the laughter from Boo is generated when someone (usually Mike) gets hurt. I know I’m somewhat outnumbered when it comes to physical comedy; I’ve never been a fan of it, and I remember not finding much of those beats funny when I was younger. It really didn’t sit well with me this time, either. In particular, when Randall comes back to the Scream Extractor to find his lackey, Fungus, attached to the machine. Fungus is almost entirely drained of color, his face distorted, and barely able to breathe. The moment made me physically uncomfortable. Maybe I’m alone in this, but both that scene and the slapstick humor hasn’t aged well. The rest of the film is so much stronger than those moments – especially the moments that have witty humor that do make me laugh out loud.
What I take away from this film – in addition to the timing of the film’s release in November 2001 – is precisely the point of the film: happiness, joy, and laughter are more powerful than fear. As Mike says, “at least we had some laughs along the way.” I think a story like this could not have come at a better time and, really, can do us all some good, at any time in our lives.
As I’ve already mentioned, I admire Pete Docter’s style; the color palate, the display of an intricate system at work, a story that depicts characters upending the status quo and stepping out of their assigned roles, and going from sequences of frenzied dialogue to deep, thoughtful scenes in which words are completely unnecessary. Those frenzied dialogue sequences are brought to delightful, sparkling life with John Goodman and Billy Crystal voicing the characters, absolutely convincing as two best friends that put each other through the ringer and come out stronger buddies by the end of the movie.
As always, it’s good to hear the voices of Bonnie Hunt and John John Ratzenberger too. Overall, I find that this film holds up as I remember it: a delightful little story that balances a deceptively smart and deep topic, while also whisking us into a whole new world for a rollicking adventure.
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