Judge Erich Asperschlager is hiding under your bed.
Pixar's reputation has taken a critical hit in recent years. Although audiences still flock to the theaters, after Cars 2 and the underrated Brave, the seemingly unshakeable CGI studio has started to look wobbly. If there has been a downturn in quality at Pixar, it's only in comparison to their stellar run during the 2000s, with films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E. Pixar seemed to arrive fully formed in 1995 with the massive hit Toy Story, followed up four years later by one of the rare sequels that's better than the original. Before long, Pixar's movies had earned audiences' trust long before they arrived in theaters. The company could do no wrong.
Sandwiched between the company's surprise early years and ascension to the animation throne, they made Monsters, Inc.. The film hit theaters in 2001 to strong sales and solid reviews by critics who still didn't know what to expect from Pixar. Kids' movies had long been defined by silly voices and flatulence jokes. Pixar's first few efforts got lumped in with lesser fare like Antz and Shrek (which beat Monsters, Inc. for Best Animated Feature before going on to age terribly), but John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, and their stable of talented writers, artists, and directors wanted more from their movies.
Facts of the Case
Pixar returns to Monstropolis this summer with the prequel, Monsters University. It's hard to know yet how it will stack up to Monsters, Inc.. I'm just happy for an excuse to revisit the original, and Pixar is happy to serve it up, in last year's 3D theatrical revival and now with the release of the 5-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition on Blu-ray.
Back in 2001, Monsters, Inc. felt like a retread of Toy Story. Instead of the secret life of toys it was the secret life on monsters. Instead of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, it had Billy Crystal and John Goodman. Instead of songs by Randy Newman, it had songs by…um, Randy Newman. Monsters, Inc. might share the basic Pixar DNA, but the end result is a unique blend of humor, pathos, and social commentary.
By setting the story in a fictional monster world, director Pete Docter and screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson are able to say things about big business and energy policy that would be a tough sell even in a movie for adults. The whole story hinges on the false belief in the monster world that kids' screams are the ideal energy source. As it is in the human world, those with the most to lose when resources becomes scarce take violent action to grab it for themselves. It would be a stretch to tie Monsters, Inc. to 9/11 and its aftermath—the movie was just about finished when that tragedy struck—but it has plenty to say about the modern political climate, even in 2013.
It also has a lot to say about what it means to be a parent. In the years since the film's release, I've gone from a bachelor with a movie addiction to an old, married guy with a young daughter. Sulley and Mike might play like an old married couple, but the film's emotional center is Sulley's paternal relationship with Boo. When she first arrives, he is terrified of her—as all parents are. Over time, he cares more about her well being than his own. He is willing to forfeit his position in the company, and even the company itself, to protect her. By the end she has conquered her fear. She ready to go home, and, although it pains him, Sulley lets Boo go, knowing he's done everything he can for her. Monsters, Inc. isn't just a buddy comedy where the good guys triumph. It's parenthood compressed into 92 minutes.
Perhaps one reason Monsters, Inc. flew under the Pixar radar is that it makes difficult storytelling look easy. Docter and company only have a few minutes to tell the audience everything they need to know about Monstropolis, the scream shortage, and the scare floor, all while introducing the film's main characters and setting up the story. They do it quickly and efficiently, in a fun way that keeps the kids entertained and never feels like an info dump. Christopher Nolan should take notes. As the story unfolds, the movie continues to expand its universe, using clever shorthand to explain complicated ideas like the door vault and monster banishment. Kids' movies tend to trample their own rules in a mad dash to the finale. Monsters, Inc. doesn't.
The film works for more obvious reasons than politics, parenthood, and pacing. It's also a lot of fun. Billy Crystal and John Goodman might not have the box office draw they did a decade ago, but they give powerhouse performances here. Crystal famously turned down the role of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. He didn't make that mistake twice. He and Goodman have great chemistry without falling into traditional "funny guy-straight man" roles, giving Mike and Sulley a lived-in feeling that hopefully won't be undermined by this summer's origin story. Crystal and Goodman aren't the only famous voices in Monsters, Inc.. The film also features James Coburn as monster boss Henry J. Waternoose, Steve Buscemi as slimy Randall, Jennifer Tilly as Mike's squeeze Celia, and Frank Oz as Randall's assistant, Fungus. Along with solid first-time performances by Pixar employees and animator Rob Gibbs' four-year-old daughter Mary, who played Boo, the actors bring their particular strengths to the movie without ever seeming like stunt casting.
Pixar's animation has come a long way since 1995, but Monsters, Inc. holds up well on Blu-ray. This Ultimate Collector's Edition has a stunning 1.85:1 1080p transfer that might look slightly better than the 2009 Blu-ray release, bringing out textures and colors that certainly weren't there on the original DVD. There was a lot of talk back in 2001 about how rendering Sulley's million-plus hairs was a CGI milestone. Thanks to the hi-def format, you can see what all the fuss is about. The big draw of this 5-disc set is getting the film in 3D, following its recent theatrical re-release. Although a lot of the movie takes place in closed quarters where the effect may be diminished, major set pieces like the climactic door vault chase showcase the new depth. This set's other major upgrade is a new 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, instead of the 2009 Blu-ray's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Whichever version your home theater can handle, Monsters, Inc. is bright, active, and immersive, with strong LFE and a powerful score that doesn't bury the dialogue.
Monsters, Inc.'s original DVD release was packed with bonus features that took viewers behind the scenes and inside Pixar Studios. The Blu-ray includes those extras, along with a bunch more in HD and in some cases, 3D. Along with the hours of old standard-def bonus features—including an audio commentary, image galleries, trailers, and dozens of featurettes divided into "Humans Only" and "Monsters Only" sections—the 2009 Blu-ray added a 22-minute filmmakers roundtable and the surprisingly tough "Roz's 100 Door Challenge." Those extras remain intact, although a Pete Docter intro and Tokyo Disney featurette from the first Blu-ray release are missing. The only exclusive bonus features in this Ultimate Collector's Edition are an extended 3-minute look at Monsters University (buried at the end of the previews); the 5-minute "Outtakes and Company Play" that played during the credits when the film was in theaters; and "Toy Story Toons: Partysaurus Rex"—a new, six-minute animated short that debuted in front of Finding Nemo's 3D theatrical re-release. It's bright, loud, funny, and presented in both 2D and 3D—as are the previously available shorts "For the Birds" and "Mike's New Car."
With so many options and great bonus content in this set, it's worth explaining the 5-disc setup. Disc 1 is the film and animated shorts in 3D, with the "outtakes"; Disc 2 has the film and shorts in 2D, with commentary and roundtable; Disc 3 has the bulk of the bonus features; Disc 4 is a DVD copy of the film with audio commentary only; and Disc 5 gives you access to a digital copy of the film.
Although I respond to Monsters, Inc. more strongly now that I have a Boo-aged daughter, it's hard to deny that this is one well-crafted film, brimming with imagination, emotion, and humor. If it takes the excitement of an upcoming prequel and post-converted 3D to get people talking about Monsters, Inc. again, so be it. Pixar has made lots of great movies, and this is one of their best.
Scary good. Not guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• 2D Version
Review content copyright © 2013 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.