from Film Forum, 11/08/01
Pixar, the studio that set a new standard for family entertainment with the spectacular and successful Toy Story franchise and A Bug's Life, have another #1 hit: Monsters, Inc. Monsters got a huge marketing push, guaranteeing it would open impressively. But is this Pixar product good enough maintain the studio's impeccable reputation?
Monsters tells the story of two beasties in Monstropolis, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman). Sulley is the city's top "Scarer," meaning he steps through portal doors and into childrens' bedrooms to scare the living daylights out of them at night. Mike stands guard, collects each child's screams in a vial, and adds them to Monstropolis's power supply. You see, the city is fueled by fear. But when a little toddler crosses over from our world into the monsters' fear factory, panic breaks out. Children, the monsters believe, are toxic. Sulley and Mike, fearing for their jobs, get busy trying to return the girl to her bedroom before they lose their jobs, and before a nasty, centipede-like monster named Randall kidnaps her for his own purposes. Things get complicated when the little gibberish-talking kid (they call her "Boo) gets to Sulley's heart, which is as big, soft, and fuzzy as he is. Sending Boo back might not be so easy after all.
Critics seem to agree that this production isn't as good as the Toy Story movies. But that doesn't mean they're panning it. Religious media critics who strive to shield us from seeing or hearing any evil can't find fault with Monsters, Inc. John Evans (whose review appears at The Dove Foundation and Preview) calls it "refreshingly free of any suggestive elements, foul language or crude humor" and thus "a welcome addition to family entertainment."
Steven Issac (Focus on the Family) promises, "The adorable Boo will win over every parents' heart the moment they meet her. And nowhere to be seen are the fiends of sexual content, profane language and substance abuse."
Others take the time to consider the quality of the craftsmanship and storytelling. Michael Elliott (Christian Critic) says the movie "is driven and driven well by its story and the characters which tell it."
Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) co-review the film: "Pixar's team of writers, animators, and actors … have proven, once again, that it's story and characters that matter most. Their message is full of love, laughter, fun, and friendship, flavored with a dash of bravery and courage."
Others find a fault or two. "The story, though imaginative, doesn't take full advantage of the concept of things that go bump in the night," says the U.S. Catholic Conference.
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) found some of the movie manipulative and sentimental. He also found some scenes "unintentionally creepy. A recurring sub-plot involves faceless monsters in haz-mat suits who are continually decontaminating areas where the little girl has been. In the midst of the anthrax scare, it was impossible not to be distracted by the similarities to images on the news." But he notes that the movie might give parents a way to talk with children about current events. "In that way, it might somehow calm their fears."
Mainstream critics were pleased, but not bowled over. Mark Caro (Chicago Tribune) argues, "Shrek … seemed to be trying to appeal to everybody without providing a consistent tone or message for anybody. Monsters, Inc. … knows its audience of the young and the young at heart. And it offers a lesson that seems particularly apt these days: Scaring kids may be inevitable, but making them laugh is a lot more satisfying."
MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) praises "the quiet and unshowy but loving attention paid to each individual hair in Sulley's fur." She feels the film "is aimed more at the kiddies: it's simpler, sweeter, less deeply affecting. The Toy Story films … are more about the adult nostalgia for childhood than they are about the circumstance of being a child—Monsters touches more on the concerns of childhood that we outgrow and forget: being afraid of monsters, and learning to let go of that fear."
I had a good time with Monsters, Inc. But Billy Crystal's performance as Mike joined a large number of recent animated characters that give a comedian the freedom to ramble on relentlessly with hit-and-miss humor. (This started with Robin Williams in Aladdin.) The Toy Story movies showed us believable friendships, but I kept wondering why Sulley runs around with this whining jabbermouth. If the movie had focused more on storytelling and less on one-liners, the relationship between little Boo and her monster (the most effective and moving element in the movie) might have become even more interesting. Still, there aren't many films around right now that are as harmless and hilarious for the whole family. So go ahead—treat your kids, and yourself.