At the Edinbourgh Animation Film Festival in 1985, the revered and beloved artist Chuck Jones was asked whether he considered his audience of children when formulating the multitude of animated features that he had written and directed. The bearded creator of arguably the best Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck films paused for a moment and said, "We never meant these for children. We wrote them to amuse and challenge each other." This little pearl of insight should come as no surprise to the legions of fans of great film animation for, whether you're five or fifty, an enduring classic will hold up to not only the context of age/maturity, but also to repeated viewings.
The brilliant and witty powers over at Pixar Studios seem to have, from the onset, adopted this Chuck Jones paradigm; their latest accomplishment is Monsters, Inc., a delightful romp of a film that simply dazzles the eye while speaking up to an audience.
It would seem there exists a parallel universe of monsters living in an environment much like our own. The monsters of all shapes, sizes, genders and abilities inhabit neighborhoods, apartments, factories and sushi bars with much the same aplomb that one might witness in any late 20th Century mid-American city. Their power however, does not derive from burning fossil fuel, but rather from harnessing the power of children's screams in our world. The portal from their world to ours is an endless supply of doors which lead to children's closets. Master Monsters are employed to make their sorties at night, scare the children and bring back the juice.
This endearing premise is presented with such nonchalance that it's perfectly reasonable to buy that the monsters are suffering an energy crisis since human kids simply don't scare as easily as they used to. The exposition is delivered with lightning speed. With equal ease, we are introduced to our heroes James P. Sullivan, better known as Sully, the premier dojo of scarers and his trusty side kick and scare assistant Mike Wazowski. As voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal respectively, Sully and Mike are perfect complements evoking the chemistry of classic film buddies from the likes of Abbott and Costello to Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
Sully is large and his cuddly countenance emanates from his long azure spotted fur. Mike is diminutive in comparison, green in hue, talks faster than Chico Marks on Benzedrine and his one distinguishing feature is a singular eye so large that it competes with the size of his body. Indeed, he even wears a contact lens that's larger than a Frisbee.
There's a host of marvelous other monsters as well. Mike's love interest is Celia (voiced by Jennifer Tilly), a Medusa haired receptionist monster. Sully's boss is a crab figured, multi-eyed monster by the name of Waternoose and as voiced by the bourbon basso of James Coburn is the ideal patriarch of the energy company, Monsters, Inc. And Steve Buscemi renders the malevolent voice of the villain Randall, a two-faced chameleon with an evil agenda.
The trajectory of the plot kicks into high gear when Sully inadvertently brings a kid named Boo back from the human world and gravely endangers Monstropolis. You see, monsters may scare kids but kids scare the daylights out of monsters too.
If the old adage that good artists borrow and great artists steal is true, then the two-person directing team and six-person writing team that molded Monsters, Inc. have adequately proven their genius. It's really not that they steal as much as their instincts are finely tuned to applying absolutes of great film making to their animated enterprise with as much assurance as a Spielberg or Welles. A spectacular chase sequence about two-thirds into the film is staged on a conveyor belt that transports the multitudinous closet doors to the scare staging area. The rollicking roller coaster ride for the characters melds the frantic fast-paced action and suspense of an Indiana Jones pursuit sequence with the visual grandeur of Citizen Kane's climatic warehouse denouement. Visual antecedents abound. Some flourishes can be seen as homages, while others come across with a postmodern 'wink wink, nudge nudge, know what I mean' intelligence. The control panel of Randall's evil scream extractor bears an uncanny resemblance to the sliding rheostat of Star Trek's transporter. The paper pushing monster administrator Roz slithers along with a Jabba The Hut appearance and gait. She does, however, sport an attractive red mohawk. In perhaps one of the most sustained bits of hilarity, the master scarers enter the factory (in slow motion nonetheless) with a direct Armageddon/Bruce Willis swagger.
Even the chic highly exclusive nightclub/restaurant that Mike takes Celia to in order to pitch his woo is called Harryhausen's. (At 82, Ray Harryhausen maintains a cult following as the foremost stop motion animator with such classics in his filmography as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and The Argonauts.)
These touches, from the sublime to the arcane, are merely the rich texture that serves as a backdrop to a story that's elegantly told and imaginatively engaging. There is an abundance of humor (both physical and linguistic) for young and old alike. The characters are well developed. Thankfully, any tenderness and pathos screeches to a graceful stop before an either maudlin or saccharine abyss.
To hoist such praise on any film these days is a thankful endeavor. Yet there's even one more aspect of this remarkable film that deserves mentioning. The fast paced witty script, the charming vocal characterizations and the inspired mis-en-scène are all executed by the technical wizardry of computer animation. For those who have already been christened to this hi-tech artistry by the likes of Shrek, Toy Story 1 & 2, Antz and/or A Bug's Life - the bar has been set significantly higher this time.
The computer crunchers are the creators and patently never have inspiration and digital paraphernalia acted in such harmony. Sully's blue mane is ready for a Clairol commercial close-up. Concrete has never looked so porous and rough and as for the reflection in the glimmer of a teardrop, that refection might be the end credits. Those tears might just be yours.