It's a short leap from "pixel" to Pixar, and from Pixar to "pixie." Technical wizardry and a certain impishness abound when this crew gets an idea and runs with it. Counting "Up," the Pixar bunch has produced 10 hits, and "Monsters, Inc." hit the bulls-eye between "Toy Story 2" (1999) and "Finding Nemo" (2003). Disney trusted that writer Pete Docter could make the leap from writer on "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" to director, and he didn't let them down. He earned a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination for "Monsters, Inc.," and presided over a bunch of CGI animators who cranked it up a notch to make every monster hair look as if it were hand-drawn.
If you think about it, "Monsters, Inc." was a brainstorm that could have rained on a lot of children's parades. After all, despite their parents' best assurances to the contrary, here was a film that confirmed one of their deepest fears: that there ARE monsters under the bed and in the closet. But from the opening scene, which begins with a fright and ends with delight after a monster-in-training gets more scared by a mechanical kid than any kid ever could, the tone is set for an outing that shouldn't scare little ones any more than little Boo (Mary Gibbs). Boo is a giggly little toddler who enters the monster world through the portal of her closet door. She's not afraid of the big blue and purple monster named Sulley (John Goodman)--whom she calls "Kitty"--so why should kids in the audience curl up in fright?
That's part of the charm of this slightly risky film, which alleges that a parallel monster world exists, and that its city is powered by energy generated by screams from our human world. Like everything else these days, screams are becoming a dwindling resource because today's children are jaded. It takes a lot to get a scream out of them. And so the talented monsters who work as "scarers" at the Monsters, Inc. factory are treated like astronauts. They're the glamour guys, and among them there's a fierce competition to become top scarer. Nice-guy Sulley almost meets his match in Randall (Steve Buscemi), a slithery-looking dragon type who's the villain in this film. It's Randall who breaks the rules to work after-hours to try to up his numbers, and in so doing he leaves the door open. That's how Boo enters, and that's what sets the plot in motion. After that, it's
"Monsters, Inc." draws its inspiration from a five-minute animated film that Pixar chief John Lasseter made when he was a student. In "Nitemare" (1979) a child encounters monsters in his bedroom but learns that they mean him no harm. In this monster world, the odd creatures are treated like people. They brush their teeth, set their alarms, commute to their jobs carrying lunch buckets, and engage in workplace humor and conflicts. Welcome to Monstropolis (a take-off of Superman's Metropolis), a city that gets its power from a corporation that employs scare-bears whose sole job it is to pass through closet doors into the human world and frighten kids so that their screams can be bottled and transmuted into energy. There's the tyrannical boss (James Coburn) who looks like a crustacean and is plenty crusty in his demeanor, there's a droll dispatcher named Roz (voiced by Bob Peterson) who speaks in deadpan, and two workers as the main focus who could have been Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in a previous lifetime. Sulley and his lottery-ball shaped, wisecracking Cyclops of a friend Mike (Billy Crystal) are the stars of this show, and it's their attempts to protect Boo from discovery and return her safely home that provides the main plot. Randall, of course, has his own agenda, and it's the usual villain's credo: thwart, thwart, thwart. Complicating matters are Monstropolis's environmental police, who descend like a swat team whenever there's a contaminant from the human world. You see, it turns out that monsters are deathly afraid of humans!
As with other Pixar ventures, part of the fun is in seeing the details of the world that they've created, and while this one isn't as lavishly decorated as others, there are some nice touches. Mike's love interest, a monster named Celia (Jennifer Tilly) who has a Medusa hairdo, is drawn in a fun way, for example. When she talks about cutting her hair, the rattlesnakes on her head get the cutest look of terror! And when Mike tries to sweet-talk Rox after he forgets to turn in paperwork, flattery like "Oozing blob" doesn't get him anywhere. Another game we get to play with a new Pixar movie is "find the Ratzenberger." Pixar has used the "Cheers" actor in every movie as their good luck charm, and he turns up here as the voice of The Abominable Snowman.
You wouldn't think that an animated feature like this could sustain tension without resorting to scares for as long as it does, but "Monsters, Inc." is pretty successful in taking us on a wild ride to save Boo's closet door so they can get her home. It's not exactly Dorothy trying to get back to Oz, and "Monsters, Inc." may not have the biggest heart among Pixar movies. But there are enough tender moments to balance the comedy, and in that rare Pixar film without music, there's plenty to hold our attention.
"Monsters, Inc." is rated G. So hey, not even the people who assign movie ratings were really scared. I guess having a toddler giggle through most of the movie was a good thing.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to 50GB disc appears to have been a good one, but "Monsters, Inc." has an uneven look to it--perhaps by design. Sometimes the picture looks a little soft, while at other times the color saturation and contrast levels are stronger. It has to do with lighting, and at times you get the feeling that the filmmakers are deliberately going for an industrial look, so it's not the transfer. It's a matter of taste, and mine would have been for a richer look throughout the film. "Monsters, Inc." is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Disney-Pixar went with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio as the featured soundtrack, and it's a good one. All of the speakers get involved, and while the sound isn't pushed too far from the source, it's nonetheless a pretty dynamic soundtrack. During chase scenes and the film's scarier moments the volume jacks up a bit, and you really get the theatrical experience right there in your home. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
I personally love the combo packs that include Blu-ray plus DVD plus Digital Copy, as this one does. You can't beat three ways to watch a film!
But let's go straight for the new features. Director Docter and his co-director, Lee Unkrich, are joined by writer Andrew Stanton and the big guy himself, John Lasseter, for a full and informative commentary track that's a real pleasure to listen to.
If you're a theme park junkie, you might enjoy the HD "Ride and Go Seek: Building Monstropolis in Japan" feature, which runs just over 10 minutes--especially if you don't think you'll ever get to the Disney theme park in Tokyo. There's also a just-over-20-minute roundtable filmed at that Pixar shrine, the Hidden City Café, where we see Docter, co-director Lee Unkrich and two cohorts sitting around a table and talking about the things they did to bring "Monsters, Inc." to life. Docter also provides a brief overview of the Blu-ray, but that's about it for new content. Other HD features include the Pixar short "For the Birds" and the short created from this film, "Mike's New Car," along with five deleted scenes that Unkrich introduces, a storyboard animation that runs a little over 15 minutes, and an art gallery just bursting with images.
As for original, standard definition features, there's a lot of little ones, which, frankly, I find annoying, given the load time for Blu-ray. There's a five-minute bit about "Designing Monstropolis," a seven-minute "Location Flyaround," a seven-minute "Monster File" that focuses on the voice talents, a four-minute "Pixar Fun Factory Tour," a seven-minute bit on music and sound design, a "Monsters Only" compilation of music videos and miscellany, and a don't-blink look at "Set Dressing." Of the original features, probably the "Animation" section that includes short segments on the early tests and animation is the best, with four additional pre-production features on "Story is King," "Monsters Are Real," "Original Treatment," and "Back to Work" also worthwhile. But I'd rather they were all put onto one big feature with scene selections than broken up into individual segments, again, because of Blu-ray load time.
Whether it's favorite toys or fantasies about toys coming to life, a lost fish or a lost child, John Lasseter and the Pixar crew know how to turn shared human feelings and experiences into strange and delightful animated features. "Monsters, Inc." is one of their most solid efforts, and this four-disc Blu-ray combo pack is a nice one.