Thursday, August 6, 2020

Reserved Seating Ranks the Pixars: MONSTERS INC.

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who aren’t scary and have little power.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our Pixar series continues with a look back at Pete Doctor’s 2001 comedy, Monsters, Inc. The film tells the story of monsters James P. Sullivan, aka “Sully” (John Goodman), and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), who are best friends and coworkers at the titular company, Monsters, Inc. Their job is to produce the energy that runs the city of Monstropolis through scaring children -- the more they’re scared, the more energy produced. Sully is the company’s top scarer and Mike is his right-hand man. Sully’s rival is the treacherous Randall (Steve Buscemi), who is not above cheating in order to supplant Sully as the company’s top monster. One night while Sully is at the office after hours, a 2-year old human girl named Boo sneaks into Monsters, Inc., causing chaos at the organization.

I don’t have a lot of history with Monsters, Inc. I remember seeing it opening weekend with my parents when they were visiting me in college and thinking it was fine. It was a kids movie at a time when I didn’t really want to watch kids movies. For a movie I only saw once and didn’t fully enjoy, I’m surprised how much of Monster, Inc. has stuck in my head over the years, whether it’s the Boo character or the conveyor of doors during the climax or the chameleon-like villain, Randall. I ended up liking Monsters, Inc. (not a fan of typing that title with the comma and the period...sigh) more on this rewatch than back in November 2001. I was growing a little restless with the world building at the beginning since there wasn’t a sense of discovery being introduced to Monstropolis this time around, but that doesn’t take away from how creative the set-up is. Once Boo shows up, the movie takes off, giving the story momentum and emotion up until the end. Her interactions with Sully melted my heart much more this time than back when I was in college. I’m a big softy now compared to those days. I also really liked the message at the end that positive energy (making someone laugh/happy) is more powerful than negative energy (making someone scared/upset).

What’s your history with Monsters, Inc.? How did it play for you on this viewing?
Rob: High School Rob had more or less outgrown Pixar by 2001 (College Rob would eventually pick it back up), so this next stretch of titles will either be first-time watches or movies I saw once and remember little about. Monsters, Inc. is in the latter category. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call this my first viewing. It’s cute! It’s a cute movie! It’s also really safe. As with A Bug’s Life, Pixar seems to be aiming down at kids rather than trying to elevate their entertainment, which I’ve always felt was the most valuable quality of their work. The “monsters in your closet are real” conceit is cool, and the Goodman/Crystal combination leads to a lot of fun moments, but it’s about a three-star movie, in most respects. It’s a stand-up double. I read that the script went through many iterations — one was a version in which an adult man’s monster sketches were coming to life — and most of them sounded a bit more ambitious than what we ended up with.

But that’s okay! I know a lot of people grew up with this movie, and I’m sure it was incredibly formative for their imaginations. I can see why. It’s a fine story. It’s wonderfully animated. There’s nothing structurally wrong with it and, as you mentioned, the world it builds is interesting enough to capture our attention. I really shouldn’t ask for much more than that. I think I’m just anxious to move out of this “What if _____ were actually alive and had a society!” phase of Pixar movies. I’m ready for a little more depth to the characters and a little more patience in the storytelling (*cough* Toy Story 2 *cough*). It’s just a 2020 problem. I’m sorry, everyone.

Adam: You’re a monster. Just kidding. I pretty much agree with you. Go on...
Rob: A positive: I really enjoyed John Goodman’s performance as Sully, and reading that he replaced the originally-cast Bill Murray made me happy. I think Murray would have gone too sad-sack as Sully, while Goodman provides a ton of warmth and a vocal timbre that matches the character’s physical design. Do you have a favorite character or a moment that really stands out for you? You mentioned the door conveyor being one.

Adam: Bill Murray’s ironic shtick would have detracted from the movie for me. I like Bill Murray for the most part, but he’s not the right person for sincerity. John Goodman was a great choice and the design of Sully is pretty much perfect in capturing the character as an overgrown plushie appearance. My favorite moments both come at the end of the movie, which is the theme rising to the surface about the energy you put out into the world and the final shot of Sully smiling when he’s reunited with Boo. Pixar is great at nailing the emotional beats of their stories and Monsters, Inc. is a solid example. It doesn’t make me cry, though. Reel talk: Is it weird to you that many people judge Pixar movies only if it did a good enough job at provoking tears out of them?

Rob: I think it speaks to what a lot of people use as criteria for an “elevated” kids’ movie. Like, “I’m 25, but WALL-E made me cry so much!” That’s fine, but it shouldn’t be the only criteria.

Adam: So, let’s talk about Billy Crystal. I like Billy Crystal. I like the idea of Mike Wazowski. The character doesn’t really do anything for me. Crystal’s riffing and kvetching just become white noise to me. Am I crazy or is this performance max calories burnt for not a lot of gain?

Rob: I like Crystal, and I like Wazowski in theory, but again, I don’t think the movie mines enough real depth from the Mike/Sully relationship (outside of the usual “best friends are important” stuff) to really make him interesting in contrast to Sully, who is doing all the heavy lifting. That’s part of why I was a little underwhelmed by the whole thing. Do I get more from this in Monsters University? I’ve never seen it.
Adam: I saw Monsters University once and it was a magic screening where everything worked and I thought it was better than Monsters, Inc. I’ve been afraid to revisit it and break the spell. My memory is that it being a prequel we get a lot more characterization and a more fleshed out relationship between Mike and Sully. Plus, it’s a college movie about fraternities. I think I automatically like it more for that reason alone.

What did you think of Steve Buscemi as the villain in comparison to the other villains we’ve seen in Pixar films we’ve covered so far? I commend them for just having Randall be a bastard instead of there being a redemption arc like so many of the villains in the Pixar cannon.

Rob: I just finished a Sopranos re-watch, so I was happy to hear his voice. And yeah, I liked that they just let him be slimy without letting him draw too much of the movie’s gravity. Anything else on Monsters Inc.?

Adam: Good score by Randy Newman. That’s about it. We’ll be back next week with a special Reserved Seating: our 2020 iteration of the Gripehouse, the column we write to get all our movie-related complaints out of our systems. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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