Sixty-four years ago, Walter Elias Disney invented the animated feature film, producing the seminal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
With that stroke of genius, he created a genre of family-friendly entertainment that packs theaters around the world to this day.
As the entertainment industry celebrates his 100th birthday Dec. 5, it's worth noting the uniqueness of his contribution to mass entertainment, when compared to much contemporary product.
Walt Disney's best work (Pinocchio, Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Bambi, etc.) was emotionally and morally uplifting, with a clear sense of good and evil and almost no concessions to prevailing political or psychological fashions. His stories and characters appealed to both children and adults, in a way that no one else has ever been able to duplicate.
In recent years, as our culture has became more permissive and ironic about traditional values, his successors have been driven to spice up their mythic yarns with politically correct messages about the environment (The Lion King) and race and gender equity (Pocahontas).
Dreamworks, Disney's main competitor for this franchise, pushes the envelope even further. Its recent hit Shrek deliberately parodies and deconstructs well-known fairy tales. The tone and execution are thoroughly postmodern, with the subtle moral relativism that implies.
Pixar, which releases through Disney, has found a way to be contemporary while remaining true to Walt's values. Its Toy Story series and A Bug's Life use computer-animation techniques to create innovative visuals beyond anything Dreamworks or Disney itself have achieved. But they resist the temptation to make fun of the genres of which they're part. Monsters, Inc. continues this legacy, rolling out 90 minutes of thrills and laughs designed for audiences of all ages.
The scary monster in the closet is a primal childhood fantasy. Directors Peter Docter, Lee Unkrich and David Silverman, along with screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson, turn these fears back on themselves with a clever twist that will be particularly satisfying to kids. The movie suggests that monsters are even more afraid of children, than the tots are of the frightening creatures.
In the story, the door to every child's bedroom closet is a pathway to a world inhabited by monsters. But the creatures that leap out and terrify kids turn out to be ordinary blue-collar types, employed in a factory that provides energy for a city called Monstropolis. The children's screams power the city the same way electricity and oil operate in real-life urban settings. The monsters serve a necessary function. The motto of their company is: “We scare because we care.”
Monstropolis has the look of Manhattan, all skyscrapers and shimmering lights, only stylized with brighter colors. The traffic signals flash “Stalk” and “Don't Stalk.” But not all of its inhabitants are scary. Most look like Maurice Sendak's sinister-but-cuddly creations. They shop at the “grossery store,” the local paper is called “The Daily Glob,” and the chic restaurant is Harryhausen's, a sly reference to the acknowledged master of stop-motion animation.
The movie comments on contemporary issues in an imaginative way adults will appreciate. Monstropolis is facing an energy crisis; rolling blackouts loom if something isn't done. Screams, the source of “clean energy,” are now harder to come by. It seems that children have become more jaded. “We've lost 58 doors this week,” one monster comments. “Kids don't scare like they used to.”
The monsters’ factory is owned by the crab-like Mr. Waternoose (voice of James Coburn), who resembles the villainous Lionel Barrymore character in It's a Wonderful Life. His employees follow the typical routine of industrial workers. They must punch in before each shift and meet their quotas. The screams they generate are measured in yellow canisters, and there's a hot competition to be Scarer of the Month.
The long-time champion is Sulley (John Goodman), a blue, furry monster with a heart of gold. His main rival is the devious chameleon Randall (Steve Buscemi), whose ruthless ambition threatens to bring the company down.
Sulley's sidekick and best friend is his “scare assistant,” Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a green one-eyed blob with the patter of an old-time borscht-belt comedian. His job is to be coach on the factory “scare floor” and set up the closet doors through which Sulley must pass to collect his screams.
The stakes are raised when a 4-year-old girl, Boo (Mary Gibbs), crosses over into the monsters’ world and induces a state of panic. The inhabitants of Monstropolis believe that any contact with humans is fatal. Decontamination commandos in yellow biohazard suits from the Child Detection Agency try to hunt Boo down, irradiating any object they think she may have touched.
Sulley comes across the little girl and tries to protect her. They bond, and she is no longer scared of him, calling him “kitty.” Mike, however, describes her as a “killing machine” and wants to send her back to the world of humans.
The rest of the plot revolves around Sulley's and Mike's efforts to keep her out of jeopardy. In the process, they discover her laughs generate more power than her screams. At times Boo seems a little too cute, and the final sequences have several plot twists too many. But the gags and chases are as inventive and antic as the best Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoon shorts of the 1940s and ‘50s.
The movie's mood is sweet and enchanting throughout. The message is that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and that laughter can be stronger than terror.
What could be more appropriate for these times? Walt would be proud of this one.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.