Monday, January 7, 2013

'Monsters Inc 3D' (2001) directed by Peter Docter, 5th January 2013

Whenever Pixar re-release one of their films in 3D there’s a faint whiff of the cash-in about it.  It’s unattractive in a company that prides itself on originality and the pushing forward  of boundaries.  These aren’t films designed with 3D in mind, and these releases are partly a result of the fact that post-converting a computer animated film into 3D is a relatively easy one, at least compared to a live action film.

For some reason I’ve always viewed ‘Monsters Inc’ as one of Pixar’s lesser creations.  For me, Pixar are at their finest when they’re taking the audience on epic journeys: all three ‘Toy Story’ films have their characters covering huge distances (relative to their sizes anyway), ‘Finding Nemo’ takes us halfway around the world and ‘Wall-E’ explores the universe as a whole.  ‘Monsters Inc’ is far more static, a comedy taking place in a handful of locations, maintaining a tight focus on character development rather than high adventure.

The monsters go to work.
The conceit of the film is to examine the life and world of the ‘monster under the bed’.  Children’s closet doors worldwide are actually portals to ‘Monstropolis’, a city inhabited by monsters of all shapes and sizes.  The city is powered by the company, ‘Monsters Inc’ by the screams of children, which are collected by blue collar monsters spending their days popping into children’s bedrooms, scaring the hell out of them and then hopping back through the portal.  The ‘top scarers’ in this system are Sulley and Mike (voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal respectively).

Sulley and Mike are absolutely perfectly designed.  They are overtly monstrous, but also relatable enough to get the audience’s sympathy almost immediately.  At first glance the fuzzy blue Sulley seems incapable of scaring anyone, he’s got big expressive eyes and a modest, friendly demeanour.  But he is a good scarer, as we see later in the film when we see him at work.  He’s the straight man to Mike, a one eyed green bowling ball with limbs.  Mike is a fantastic creation, frazzled and somewhat justifiably self-centered, yet also deeply in love with a receptionist.

Mike and Celia's relationship is genuinely sweet.  D'aww.
As the story begins they’re at the top of their game and life is good, but soon a spanner is thrown into the works, namely the arrival of the human child ‘Boo’ into their world, who arrives clinging to the back of Sulley.  Children are seen as a terrifying, poisonous and toxic presence in the monster world, so Sulley and Mike endeavour to get her back to her bedroom without anyone realising that she’s in their care. It’s a compelling scenario, one is executed flawlessly.  They've harnessed some dark arts over at Pixar; writers and artists with direct access to my heartstrings that they’ll pluck relentlessly without me ever feeling manipulated.  ‘Monsters Inc’ is for the most part a broad comedy, and channels Warner Bros animated shorts in a big way.  But it all hangs together as a whole due to the relationship between Sulley, Mike and their unexpected charge, Boo. 

Boo is a brilliant creation.  Voiced by 2 year Mary Gibbs, she cutely babbles and wanders her way through scenes with an innocence that hilariously undercuts a lot of the tension the characters try to create.  Her good nature powers the central bit of character development in the film, that of Sulley dealing with the responsibilities of unexpectedly becoming a surrogate father.  This change in Sulley directly impacts upon Mike.  At the start of the film they’re on the same page, but Sulley’s priorities shift so far that the two come into conflict with each other; Mike wanting everything to go back to normal whatever the cost, and Sulley wanting the best for Boo.

Boo, in a monster costume.
Technically the film is nearly flawless.  To 2013 eyes there are a few slightly ropey looking creations in the background, but Pixar have always known both the limitations and possibilities of their technology and nothing jumps out as obviously dated.  The big technological step forward when this was released 12 years ago was Sulley's fur, this being the first time that they'd dare to try rendering a lead character covered in long hairs.  The effect looks as impressive as it did then, so realistic you want to reach out and stroke it.

The voice work remains superlative.  Generally voice actors perform their work alone, and the dialogue is spliced together at a later date, but Goodman and Crystal performed together at the same time, resulting in beautifully natural back and forth dialogue.  I guess when you're recording dialogue for animated films, you use your voice actors when they've got free time in their schedules, and generally don't bother to get them all in at once at extra expense.  'Monsters Inc' shows that sometimes, this expense is worth it for the uplift that the spontaneity gives to the performances and the characters.

Billy Crystal and John Goodman together in the recording booth.
'Monsters Inc' is interestingly plotted, the villains being an ambitious scarer who develops a sinister new way of extracting screams from children and Henry J Waternoose, a rapacious capitalist who cares more about the survival of his business than the human cost running it entails.  I had only a vague memory of the plot from watching it on its release, and I was surprised to see a neat little anti-capitalist critique fuelling much of the main plot.  The film presents us a classically styled besuited and portly boss, running a factory that literally runs on the screams of children.  It's like a cartoon from the 'Socialist Worker'.  Our heroes are blue-collar workers with an innate paternalistic trust in their boss as someone who has their interests in mind.  Naturally he doesn't; he's developing a more inhumane yet more efficient method of extracting screams that will put Sulley and Mike out of a job.

"I'll kidnap a thousand children before I let this company die, and I'll silence anyone who gets in my way!" - Henry J Waternoose
I particularly like that after they've defeated this nefarious plot and saved the day, our heroes head outside to find that they have indeed put the company out of business and left the entire workforce unemployed and miserable.  It's nice to see a film that considers the consequences of the actions of the hero, pointing out that even doing what is obviously the right thing can have unintended results on the wider community.  Fortunately Sulley has realised that the sound of children's laughter is even more potent than their screams and reconfigures Monsters Inc. to harness this instead of their terror.  Sulley replaces Waternoose as the factory boss, signified by his donning a tie and a clipboard to examine his workers.   

Sulley's tie has disturbing implications.  Throughout the film he's the epitome of the blue-collar worker (even down to literally being blue), but now he's begun to elevate himself above the other monsters.  He's now his best friend Mike's superior and employer, a situation that can only inevitably lead to conflict between these two former buddies.  In addition, while times are good in the factory at the moment and labour relations are positive how we are to know that the situation is sustainable?  The desperate and sinister Waternoose was once a worker on the 'scare floor', and from the initial respect he has from his employees may have once been like Sulley.  Is our furry, gregarious blue-furred hero destined for a slow transformation into a warped, manipulative, profit margin obsessed fat 'kitty'?  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  Perhaps if the monsters working on the scare floor had been properly unionised they'd have had the wherewithal to reorganise Monsters Inc as a worker's co-operative to prevent history inevitably repeating itself?  

Times are good... but for how long?  Notice that Sulley is no longer 'Sulley' now.  He's James P. Sullivan CEO.
It's  also worth recognising that Disney itself has parallels to the fictional corporation of 'Monsters Inc'.  While Monsters Inc makes money from using children's screams as a source of energy, Disney Corporation makes money exploiting child labour in China, and considering that there are reports of colleagues committing suicide as a result of being scolded by factory bosses may well literally be running a corporation reliant on the screams of children.  It's for reasons like this that at the back of my mind I always feel that even when Pixar make wonderful films with an anti-materialist or environmental message, that there's a nugget of hypocrisy lurking deep down at the core.

But that's enough politics.  'Monsters Inc' is a classic of animation that's perhaps unfairly overlooked compared to some of Pixar's more overtly ambitious technical and narrative ventures.  It's a rock-solid comedy with a brilliantly original premise that executes it perfectly.  It's also astoundingly self-contained, telling us all we need to know about the characters and their world in an hour and a half.  There's a sequel due this summer, 'Monsters University', which I have reservations about.  Is it going to be a 'Toy Story 3' or a 'Cars 2'?  While I'd rather Pixar be putting out original films, if anyone can make the subject matter work its them.

The 3D adds nothing of note by the way, but it doesn't distract either.


'Monsters Inc 3D' is on general release from January 18.

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