Over the last few years, I’ve come to expect to be amazed at each new computer-animated release. First Toy Story impressed with its shiny, clean look. Then Antz and A Bug’s Life took texture to the next level, making skin and walls and props look as though you could reach out and touch them.
Tarzan introduced a technique known as “deep canvas,” which was impressive to see, even if it was misused. And this year, Shrek had an amazing presence, even though the extras were rather wooden. Final Fantasy was “realistic” enough to raise the question of why we don’t just start filming actors again.
I expected Monsters, Inc. to take animation to the next level, whatever that might be, but it didn’t happen. Instead of representing the latest and greatest in animation technology, Monsters represents the beginning of an era of Pixar/Disney clones.
The Scream Engine
Did You Notice?
John Goodman and Billy Crystal lend their voices to Sully and Mike, two blue-collar monsters who help power the city of Monstropolis. Sully is the leading power producer down at the plant, and he’s on the verge of setting a plant record. In this time of power shortage, Monstropolis could use more heroes like Sully.
See, Monstropolis is powered by the screams of frightened children. It’s Sully’s job (along with all the other weirdos at the plant) to go through the closet doors of children all over the world, and scare the little screams out of them. The screams are then compressed and captured in steel cylinders and used to power the city. There is a power shortage, however, because kids these days don’t scare as easily as they used to.
Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi) makes for a scary villain. This slinking reptile is number two at the plant, and he really wants to beat Sully. He is good at scaring kids, but not as good as Sully, and he works extra hours just to keep up. On the side, he’s devising a new machine that rips the screams right out of the children. You get more scream per child, but the drawback is that it, ahem, damages the children in the process. That’s the price of progress in Monstropolis.
Just to complicate things, a little girl sneaks through her closet door into the world of Monstropolis, and Sully and Mike (who name the little kid, appropriately, “Boo”) end up having to try to get her back home — not easy when you live in a city that believes “there is nothing more toxic or more deadly than a human child.”
The Monster’s in the Details
Monsters, Inc., is somehow not as inspired as A Bug’s Life or Toy Story. There are too many monster puns and too few creative ideas. Not that the monster puns aren’t funny. There are tons of little jokes, both in the dialogue and on the screen. In the locker room, Mike asks to borrow Sully’s “odorant.” Our heroes walk past a corner market with a sign that says “grossery.” As Richard Sharp said about The Man Who Wasn’t There, this movie just begs for a deluxe-edition DVD and a pause button.
There is also a chase scene at the end that is as surreal as Being John Malkovich and as exciting as James Bond. Even if the rest of the film were worse, the 20-minute chase scene would make Monsters worth the trip to the megaplex.
The visuals are as good as in other Disney/Pixar movies, but they haven’t really evolved. That’s not necessarily a complaint, but it makes me wonder whether we’ve reached a plateau in animation technology. Maybe now studios will work within the genre, within these boundaries, to bring about new stories.
In the past, when a genre hit a plateau, it actually inspired some great subtle creativity. Without this evolution of genres, we wouldn’t have films like High Noon, which appears to be a harmless western, but is often seen as a metaphor for life under McCarthyism; or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is forever linked to the Red Scare of the later fifties.
Maybe these computer-animated film can start to tackle interesting social issues in the guise of entertainment. Maybe Pixar will hire subversive writers who will subtly comment on the Clinton and Bush years.
Nah. What am I talking about? It’s just a cartoon.