John Lasseter, the guiding light behind computer animation pioneer Pixar, has created for himself that most enviable of dilemmas: When you start with perfection, what do you do for an encore?
It’s not overstating the case to call Lasseter a genius. No filmmaker of our time understands so instinctively how to mesh astonishing visuals with a passion for story and character. Toy Story and Toy Story 2—easily the finest one-two franchise punch since the first two Godfather films—offered giddy kiddie delights rich with feeling and humanity. A Bug’s Life stepped down from those heights only a half-notch. So, now what?
Now, serving simply as an executive producer, Lasseter has handed over the reins of Pixar’s latest feature Monsters, Inc. to director Pete Docter. Docter has crafted a thoroughly entertaining little animated adventure. And somewhere, the wand with which John Lasseter created his pure cinema magic languishes unused.
In typically inventive Pixar fashion, Monsters, Inc. boasts a great basic concept: an alternate universe called Monstropolis, where the primary source of energy for the monster denizens is the screams of children (collected during nighttime visits through dimension-spanning closet doors). Though Top Scarers like “Sulley” Sullivan (voice of John Goodman) and his assistant Mikey (Billy Crystal) do the best they can to keep the juice flowing, kids are getting harder to scare these days. Monstropolis faces a California-like power crisis, complete with warnings of rolling blackouts. Plus, those kids are apparently toxic to monsters, making them pretty scary themselves to the ostensible Scarers.
So what happens when an adorable toddler (Mary Gibbs) wanders back through the monsters’ portal? Well, Sulley gets rather protective of the kid he calls Boo, though she’s essentially Monstropolis contraband. He gets even more protective when he suspects she’s part of some dark scheme involving nasty rival Scarer Randall (Steve Buscemi).
Like all of Pixar’s films, Monsters, Inc. is at its best when it’s most densely packed, piling on the visual gags and obscure references with a whimsical disregard for how many viewers will actually catch everything. Toy Story 2’s Jessie makes a cameo appearance, as does a Pizza Planet truck tucked into the corner of one shot. Waiters at a Monstropolis restaurant greet patrons with a shout familiar to any sushi-lover. And in one hilarious sequence—an extended homage to the classic Chuck Jones short “Feed the Kitty”—Sulley reacts with horror as a heap of garbage in which he thinks Boo has been trapped is rolled, crushed and processed.
The film lands jab after jab of comic ingenuity, thanks to a smart script from Pixar vets like Andrew Stanton. Then, unexpectedly, the attention to detail will slip at crucial junctures. After setting up the idea that kids are supposed to be poison to monsters, the film never explains why Boo wanders through their world doing no damage whatsoever. Is she somehow special, or has the whole thing been a myth concocted to make the children easier to dehumanize? And if the latter, why does one piece of a kid’s clothing leave a scar on one monster’s skin?
Ditto the lack of focus when it comes to giving the story a driving character arc. Monsters, Inc.’s center seems to be Sulley questioning his role as amiable cog in a corporate scream machine, but despite Goodman’s sympathetic voice, Sulley is never particularly compelling. Nor does the narrative build a strong enough chemistry between Sulley and Mikey to give their falling-out resonance. Even the chameleonic villain Randall seems to disappear into the scenery just when a real motivation might have given the conflict a boost. Moments of slowed-down pacing and amped-up Randy Newman orchestral cues tell us when it’s time to be emotionally affected—and thank heaven for them, because it would be nearly impossible to tell otherwise.
Monsters, Inc., simply put, needs John Lasseter. It needs a guy who never would have let that toxic kid subplot turn into a red herring. It needs the touch of a director who understands how to grab on to powerful subtext—like Toy Story’s sibling rivalry, or Toy Story 2’s meditation on impermanent happiness—and make it dazzlingly entertaining. You can spot a few messages about the consequences of our insatiable thirst for energy percolating around the edges of Monsters, Inc., but those messages are never given a human heart. As both Toy Story films and A Bug’s Life proved, it doesn’t take humans as characters for that heart to beat.
Clever, buoyant comedies come along rarely enough that knocking Monsters, Inc. at all feels like impossible-to-please grumpiness. There’s more throwaway charm here than most films can muster by grunting and straining, because it essentially respects audience members of every age instead of pandering to them. Even the vaguely crude gags—jokes about yellow snow, or underarm “odorant”—manage witty twists. And there’s still that Pixar technological punch, from Sulley’s individually flittering fluorescent hairs to the eye-popping roller-coaster ride of a climactic chase. Monsters, Inc. is fun, and sometimes fun is enough.
It’s just not as much as your gut tells you Pixar’s films can be. There’s something telling about the scene in which the “exiled” monster The Abominable Snowman pops up, with John Ratzenberger’s earnest delivery instantly creating a genuine character. Sulley and Mikey never manage to feel quite that genuine, and as a result, Monsters, Inc. can only hope to be a pleasantly intelligent diversion. The potential for another slice of perfection sits somewhere on a table in Northern California, next to a Pixar workstation with John Lasseter’s magic wand.
Monsters, Inc. (G) HHH Directed by Pete Docter. Featuring the voices of John Goodman, Billy Crystal and Steve Buscemi.