You won't believe your eye.
Back in 1995, an upstart studio made a big splash by providing a feature-length computer animated film called Toy Story. Using (then) state-of-the-art technology, Toy Story was a technically sound display of what the future of animation held. On top of that, it was a thoughtful, funny, and nostalgic film that audiences embraced. Instead of resting on their laurels, Pixar continued to improve the technology for a sequel and another film about a colony of ants in a remake of The Seven Samurai. Pixar's latest film is Monsters, Inc., and Disney has rolled out the red carpet for a spectacular DVD.
Facts of the Case
Behold Monstropolis. It's a thriving city in which its denizens are oblivious to the problems behind the scenes at Monsters, Inc. You see, Monstropolis' power supply, instead of coal or nuclear power, is derived from the screams of children. This means that brave monsters must step through closet doorways and elicit screams by scaring children all over the world. It's a dangerous job, since the very touch of a child can be toxic to monsters. The monsters are undaunted, however, especially James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski, Fallen) who's been Monsters, Inc.'s top scarer for almost a full year. Sulley, a big, blue furball, might look harmless, but he's having the best month of his career and is shooting for the overall scare record. Sulley's assistant and scream engineer, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal, When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers), is nothing more than a big, walking eyeball, but he keeps Sulley motivated. This is all much to the displeasure of Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi, Fargo, Reservoir Dogs), a millipede-like monster with the abilities of the Cheshire Cat. Randall is the second best scarer and has been working in Sulley's shadow for too long. He'll do anything to earn the rank of top scarer, even if it means cheating.
Life is pretty normal for Sulley until a child sneaks back through into Monstropolis. Since the decontamination process Sulley would have to go through would jeopardize his run for the record, he tries to cover up the child's existence with Mike's assistance, though both monsters are vastly frightened of the child since her touch is thought to be fatal. The obvious solution is to return the child, whom Sulley starts to affectionately call "Boo," through her door, but in doing so they uncover an insidious plan by Randall to revolutionize the scream industry.
Monsters, Inc. is one of those movies where it's just best to sit back and enjoy the ride. The story is somewhat simple compared to the other Pixar films. All three acts of the film are solid, but the entire plot essentially revolves around returning Boo to her bedroom. This is not to say that the story is boring, but it lacks the complexity of A Bug's Life or Toy Story 2.
One of the trademarks of Pixar (and most forms of "childrens'" entertainment) is the injection of more adult humor, inside jokes, and various pop culture references, and Monsters, Inc. has a plethora of all of the above. Some of the references, such as a shot of the monsters entering the scare floor in slow motion, a la The Right Stuff, were fairly obvious. One of the more subtle jokes revolves around Steve Buscemi's character and the wood chipper the monsters use to destroy "dead" doors, making references to the climax of Fargo. The best of these moments is an obvious tip of the hat to "Feed the Kitty," a classic from the mind of the late, great Chuck Jones. In Monsters, Inc. Sulley's facial expressions perfectly mimic those of the dog in the aforementioned cartoon short when he believes Boo has ended up in a trash compactor. There are, of course, many other examples (and probably several I missed) of movie references and inserted bits of Pixar history, but I'll leave you to discover them. The humor, as a whole, doesn't run nearly as "adult" as the humor in Shrek did, but there are moments when the grown-ups in the audience will be laughing while the younger viewers remain silent. There's something in Monsters, Inc. for everybody.
Another remarkable item in Pixar's films is the quality of the vocal talent they seem to attract. Even stars that I tend to dislike (e.g. Tim Allen) tend to give signature performances and help elevate the story to greatness. In the case of Monsters, Inc., the always phenomenal John Goodman carries the script on his shoulders. Under Goodman's watch, Sulley essentially becomes a big teddy bear that the audience will instantly identify with. Billy Crystal is terrific as Mike Wazowski, delivering some of the funnier lines in the movie, and Steve Buscemi is nothing short of outstanding as the vile Randall Boggs. Venom seems to drip off of Randall's every word and makes his brand of villainy believable. Other notable performances include the venerable James Coburn (Payback, The Magnificent Seven) as Monsters, Inc. CEO Henry J. Waternoose III and Jennifer Tilly (Bound, Stuart Little) as the feisty Celia, Mike's love interest. The one person who's appeared in all of Pixar's films, John Ratzenberger (Toy Story, TV's Cheers), manages a very funny cameo as the Abominable Snowman.
The advances made in computer graphics over the last couple of years have been staggering, and they're all on display in Monsters, Inc. As I mentioned when I reviewed Shrek, there have been a couple of "Holy Grails" in the way of computer generated animation, and the creators of Shrek made huge strides on facial structure and musculature (something that Monsters, Inc. seems to be lacking), moving clothing, and fluid dynamics. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within made amazing strides in the depiction of authentic looking human beings (they were about 95% there). What those two movies did in these respective areas, Monsters, Inc. has achieved in the realistic motion of hair and fur. Let's face it: when you have characters covered head-to-toe in fur, you need them to look realistic. All I can say is, "wow." The animators in Monsters, Inc. pulled out all of the stops to make sure Sulley was as realistic looking as a large blue mound of hair could possibly be. If you have any interest in computer animation and haven't seen this film yet, I'd recommend renting it just on these merits alone. It also doesn't hurt that Pixar's animators have keen eyes for detail, making sure that anything happening on screen looks authentic. There's a scene where Mike and Sulley's apartment is lit only by candles while Boo sits on the floor drawing pictures. Pixar managed to get the candlelight to flicker realistically and cause all of the shadows to move properly in this scene. Truly amazing.
Walt Disney has released a two-DVD set and included a widescreen and a full screen version of Monsters, Inc. At first this would seem like a good thing, but unfortunately both versions were placed on the same DVD while all of the extras were placed on the other DVD. In order to get both versions of the film on one disc, the quality of the video was somewhat effected and there are some issues with compression artifacts. These are not all that easy to notice and should not distract most viewers from enjoying the film, but there is no reason why this had to happen. Why not divide up the features between the two DVDs and place the two versions of the film one per disc? I should mention that just about every other studio is following this formula and it properly protects the integrity of the transfer. On top of this, the layer change is a bit longer than it should be and not necessarily in the best of locations. I don't appear to be the only person with this complaint, so there might be a problem in the authoring of the DVD. Again, this is a minor issue, but it's an issue nonetheless. The 5.1 channel sound mix is nothing short of fantastic, and all channels are utilized throughout the film. This is a quality auditory experience, no matter how you slice it.
As usual for Pixar films, the special features are numerous and varied. We start with yet another terrific commentary by the filmmakers. It's obvious that these folks put their hearts and souls into every film they make and they certainly enjoy talking insightfully about their accomplishments. After this we have a couple of short films, including the exclusive "Mike's New Car," which features Mike Wazowski trying to drive Sulley to work in his new wheels (hilarity ensues), "For the Birds" (which won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film), and the "Monster's Inc. Company Play." On this note they also shamelessly plug their upcoming film Finding Nemo.
Moving along, Pixar has an in depth behind-the-scenes look at how Monsters, Inc. came together. This includes everything from the voice acting, the scripting, the storyboarding, and the design sketches (there are lots of design sketches on the DVD), all the way up through to the premiere party. The one thing that I've always enjoyed about these features on the Pixar DVDs is that they're very up close and personal, allowing the audience to see and hear the creative talent behind the magic at Pixar. If you're a techno geek like I am, you should enjoy these features. While moving around in this section of the DVD (called "Human World"), you should also be able to find the outtakes (another Pixar trademark) and a page-by-page guide to all of the inside jokes and gags that populate the movie.
Moving over to "Monster World," you'll find the Monsters, Inc. Employee Handbook that will take you through your first day of employee orientation. This is a fun section that details how the "science" of Monsters, Inc. works, as well as a history of Monstropolis. Rounding this section out is "Boo's Door Game," which is essentially Peek-A-Boo and it might keep you occupied for about thirty seconds before getting boring.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I mentioned above, Monsters, Inc. has a much simpler story than previous Pixar films, and in some ways this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In other ways, though, the film is extremely predictable. I had the ending pretty much figured out 20 minutes in, despite the couple twists and turns the story manages to make. Younger audiences probably won't notice this problem, but a lot of adult viewers might have an issue with it. The film is still enjoyable as a whole thanks to the great comedic timing of the cast and crew, but this film seemed lacking where Pixar's previous efforts were not. The story as a whole also tends to bog down during the second act, which pretty much consists of Mike and Sulley trying to sneak Boo back in to Monsters, Inc. and Boo sneaking off and getting into some sort of trouble. Yes, it's cute and funny (Boo really is rather adorable), but that joke just seems to drag on a little too long. Again, these complaints are really minor considering that I really enjoyed watching Monsters, Inc.
I also have one final complaint about the layout of the special features. For instance, why are the outtakes on three different menus? There are other items that I watched multiple times because they were on more than one menu and had a different title. I understand the designers want to make it easy to access the various features, but there's no need to place the presumably popular features on multiple menus. Trust me, I'll find them if I need them.
Monsters, Inc. may not be the absolute sure thing that previous Pixar films have been, but it will still make for several enjoyable viewings. Disney has done a pretty nice job in presenting a full, complementary package of extras, but they made a few design errors in creating these discs. Even so, if you enjoyed this movie in its immense theatrical run, or enjoy computer animation, I can't recommend this DVD enough.
Once again, the crew at Pixar has redeemed themselves. The cast and the makers of Monsters, Inc. are all free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Filmmakers' Audio Commentary with Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton, and John Lasseter
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