In my mind (and that's a dank and empty place from which nothing of worth or consequence proceeds), It was with 2001's Monsters, Inc. that Pixar's big red machine got rolling. Up until that point, they were making good, even very good movies. Toy Story was a masterpiece, a movie that was all-around great, but, while excellent, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2 were not of that same caliber. Monsters, Inc. was. And the machine was rollling now. The next one, Finding Nemo was even better. The next one, The Incredibles was again, a masterpiece. This string of masterworks could easily be equated to impressive feats of success in other realms, like the Chicago Bulls winning three consecutive NBA titles (twice in eight years), Secretariat's Triple Crown, Apple's unending releases of successful applications and devices (iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iMac, iWhateverthehellwecomeupwithnext). Anyway, I absolutely love Monsters, Inc.
Monsters, Inc. was directed by Pete Docter. Which marks the first Pixar film not to be directed by John Lassiter. After three amazing successes. He was able to hand the reins to his previous co-directors and sit back, producing instead of doing the day-to-day directing. He had already turned Docter into a clone though, as evidenced by the matching shirts that all the Pixar creative team wear. Clones of impressive creative talent are a good thing, though.
So, I wrangled all the kids into our TV room, and we sat down to watch the film. First off is the short, For The Birds, a film about fat, little round blackbirds sitting on a wire. Along comes a similar bird, but this one is large and gangly instead of little and fat. He wants to join in the fun with the little birds, but he doesn't fit in, and the little birds try to exclude him, like a nasty clique of high school mean girls. They make fun of his looks and his birdcall. They automatically assume that he is stupid and bad, because he is different (although maybe that isn't a valid point, because the filmmakers certainly made him seem stupid). When the big bird doesn't take the hint, and settles onto the wire in the middle of their clique, the blackbirds go on the attack. This, of course, goes badly for the fat little birds (if it didn't there'd be no moral to the story, I suppose).
I like this short a great deal. The message is valuable, and it's cute. The other thing that always impresses me, is how well Pixar can tell a story without dialogue. The blackbirds chirp and squawk, but they don't talk. And looking at the list of all the other Pixar shorts, only one of them has any speaking at all (that comes from the narrator on Boundin', the short that preceded Cars).
First thing in Monsters, Inc. is the opening title sequence. It's 2D animation, accompanied by a jazzy up-tempo version of the Randy Newman theme song for the movie, "If I Didn't Have You." The title sequence reminded me of old school Disney animation from the '60s, jagged lines, angular shapes, and garish colors. It is particularly reminiscent of the opening sequence for 101 Dalmations, which features dancing spots, a lot like the dancing doors. On the commentary, the filmmakers said they needed that credit sequence to make sure people knew what kind of a movie this was, because the next scene was the rather creepy intro where the monster comes in to scare the child, which of course turns out to be nothing but a job training simulator.
There is a bit of a formula for Pixar films, it seems. Start out with an attention catching first scene, in Toy Story it's Andy playing with his toys, in Finding Nemo it's the death of Nemo's mother Coral, and in Monsters, Inc. it's the job training simulator. After the attention grabbing scene, we then move into the world building exposition scene. Pixar films tend to be about things other than the world we know--Bugs, Toys, Monsters, Fish. So they introduce you to the world you're exploring with simple scenes that are loaded with gags and jokes. Whether it's Mr. Potato Head's Picasso joke, or the kids playing in Mrs. Flounder's yard, or the blob monster falling in the street grate, it's a non-stop gag fest for about five minutes or so as the main characters give us all the exposition we need in their dialogue.
Monsters, Inc., seems to be the first film that Pixar did in which they truly explored the depths of relationships and love, not romantic love, but the love for a parent to a child. In this film, Sully, the monstrous main character, is in the role of the parent, although obviously not the real parent. And there is Boo, the human girl, playing the role of the child. Sully grows to love this little critter (it's amazing how kids grow on you like that, even the naughty ones), and it comes to the point that he will do anything to keep her safe and make her happy. The relationship that Sully and Boo create is the most special thing that Pixar had captured on film up to this point. When we get to the end, and it seems as though Sully will never see Boo again, their goodbye is very touching. It's the tear-jerking scene of the film. But wait, there's more! Mike Wazowski manages to make it possible for them to see each other again, and with the look on Sully's face that the film ends with, the tears flow once more.
When I watch this film, I'm always amazed by the audio they managed to get out of the girl who played Boo. How many hours in the recording booth did those poor guys spend trying to coax a two-year-old or three-year-old to say something that they could use? I've worked a little with children and audio, and, depending on the kid, it can be hard. I guess Mary Gibbs is just one of those kids. She probably had to be a very precocious little kid to have produced the audio she produced. I have one kid who is precocious, and she could probably make all the giggles and nonsense phrases that Boo said in the film, but getting her to say lines, that's a little more difficult. Then I have one kid who is too embarrassed to speak loud enough on the mic to be heard.
Another really cool thing about this movie is the extras that came with the DVD. The tour of the new Pixar facility makes me want to work there so bad. I wish I had a skill that they valued. I suppose that some of the things that we see in the tour were just set dressing, obviously the chimp doesn't really work there. And how many of those people riding Razor scooters around the building normally leave their scooter at home, but brought it in to make the video cooler? I have an old acquaintance that works at Pixar, maybe I should ask him. Then again he stopped responding to my emails...he must have gotten sick of my fanboy prattle.
One of the reasons I think this film is as fun as it is has to do with the people they chose to be their main characters voices. Billy Crystal and John Goodman had already made a career of being funny. In fact one of my favorite movies of all-time is Billy Crystal's When Harry Met Sally. Several of the funniest parts in the show are things that Crystal and Goodman improvised on the spot, including the songs for "Put That Thing Back Where It Came From Or So Help Me!" The good thing about Crystal and Goodman is that, while funny, they aren't manic and annoying like others who have found their way into CG films, namely Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Yes, Crystal throws in some annoying New Yorker-isms, but for the most part, he and Goodman are funny when needed, and low key otherwise. Their antics never overpower the story.
I suppose here is where I should rant about the injustice of the Oscars. Monsters, Inc. is an Oscar Winning film, but the only statuette it has is for Randy Newman's song, "If I Didn't Have You." While that song is good, especially the version sung by Goodman and Crystal, it isn't the best thing in the film. The goodness of the song doesn't even come close to the goodness of the overall film, and there is an Oscar for the overall goodness of an animated feature. But no, Monsters, Inc. did not receive the Oscar for that. Someone thought that Dreamworks' Shrek was superior, several someones I suppose. Shrek was the darling of the year, and continues to be the darling through two sequels, going on three. I personally am not a fan of Shrek, but I'll save my rant for another time (if you haven't heard it before, well you're one of the few). In fact, I'm going to take it another step further. I've decided, now that I've gone through and watched the ten Pixar films, to give a few of the others, the pretenders as I call them, a second (or first in some cases) chance. Maybe I'll blog about them as well. The best of the rest.
For now, know that I think that Monsters, Inc. is a masterpiece of modern animation and filmmaking. If you haven't seen it, you should.