It’s always fun going back to the earliest movies of a major studio’s catalog to see what kinds of projects it was willing to develop before it had a history of blockbusters under its belt and a host of external expectations that attach themselves to the creative process like barnacles. Pixar’s fourth feature film, Monsters, Inc., is one such movie, its production launched off the simplest of premises: let’s make a movie about monsters. From that, director Pete Doctor managed to plumb the depths of his own childhood fears about monsters and the relationships that kids have with them during the night time hours. But along the way, he did what Pixar does so often, and so well: crafted a story steeped in our elemental childhood interests, re-interpreted it through the lens of adulthood, and ensured it spoke equally to everyone in the audience, no matter their age. The result is a masterful tale not just of two monster buddies who have a really eventful day on the job, but a story about how professional pressures have a way of breaking down even the noblest of intentions.
The story takes place in the city of Monstropolis, a society of more-or-less friendly monsters that is powered by the screams of human children. This makes the key industry Monsters, Inc., a power company that sends professional frighteners through magic doors into the closets of kids while the sleep. The monsters poke their heads out of the closet and terrify a youngster into screaming. the screams fuel the grid, and the frightener moves on to the next child. The company’s top scare team consists of James Sully, a furry blue giant with a heart of gold, and his technician Mike Wazowski, a wisecracking, green, cyclopean orb. Together, they have the favor of Waternoose, the company’s CEO, and the enmity of Randall, a sinister monster who is Sully’s long-time rival, and who really wouldn’t mind being a lot rougher with the kids he scares. Things get complicated when Mike and Sully accidentally let a human child named Boo wander through a door into the monster world. Given that the monsters all think human kids are lethally toxic, Mike and Sully fear for their jobs because of the gaffe, and try to sneak Boo back home. But along the way, they learn that the relationship between humans and monsters isn’t what they were led to believe, and that the necessary evil behind the mission of Monsters, Inc. might be a whole lot more evil than necessary.
On its face, Monsters, Inc. is a mild buddy movie next to a mild fish-out-of-water story next to a mild parody of the trials and tribulations of adult life—especially the headaches that come with taking care of a young child. It all feels like it should descend into a cascade of tiresome cliches, but it doesn’t, thanks to skillful execution, clever writing, and a willingness to bring some thematic heft to a story that otherwise could have skated by without it. At the heart of everything is a sense of contradiction that invites us to take a close look at this society’s ground rules, because they just don’t quite add up. Monstropolis might be a world of monsters, but they’re about as scary as the plush dolls we all had as kids. The monsters are in the business of scaring, but they are more governed by fear of human kids than human kids are by their night-time visitors. Plus, the scaring business is so inherently fraught with peril that it constantly invites the intervention of the Child Detection Agency (itself a weird mash-up of ICE and the EPA). Behind the cheerful visuals, funny dialogue and sight gags is something unsustainable and too bound up in unresolved tension to work smoothly.
There is the moral quandary of Monstropolis’ energy production, too. Sure, the city needs to scare kids to keep the lights on, but given how easily the monsters themselves feel terror, is it really okay to export that to innocent children? The world gets by with a kind of othering of the kids themselves; they’re all written off as toxic monsters themselves (something most parents will, at one time or another, agree with), so there’s an inherent permission to not think too hard about the harm baked into their jobs. But there is also a warning there, too. Look too hard at this whole thing, and it falls apart pretty quickly, something nobody wants to do because they know how much it will cost them. There is a quiet tyranny to this world of monsters, and one more grounded in the banality of evil than the evil grandeur we’re much more accustomed assigning to big-screen villains.
All of this sets up the big plot turn: that human kids really aren’t toxic, and capturing their screams really isn’t the best way to power Monstropolis. It’s an inconvenient truth that could be addressed if leadership was willing to make some disruptive changes to its existing operations. But that’s risky and inconvenient, and as history shows us in the human world as well as the monstrous one, bad leadership thrives on the past of least resistance. We see this especially in the movie’s moment of truth, when Waternoose lays bare his disdain for the company’s need to reinvent itself, and that he’d far prefer to pursue an unsustainable path that causes more harm than good because it’s the option that feels more familiar to him. What makes this moment so great isn’t just that it’s the moment when the bad guy seals his own fate, but that it reminds us how easily even able leaders go astray when they let their vision be driven by fear instead of courage. Monsters, Inc. held the key to success in its claws from the very beginning. It just needed to see it for what it was: an opportunity.