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Wednesday
Oct102012

Oscar Horrors: Innocence and "Monsters, Inc"

HERE LIES... the Best Animated Feature nomination for Monsters, Inc. (2001) sent to an early grave by a big green ogre. Hi, Deborah from Basket of Kisses here. The Great Oscar Animation War of 2001/2002 was fought between innocence and jadedness, between sincerity and irony, between modernism and post-modernism, or, to put it plainly, between Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. (To be fair, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, was also in the race, but I don't know anyone who considered it a contender.) The winner, Shrek, announced a tragedy of 21st century humor, in which reference and winking has won out over wit and warmth. What? Do I sound bitter?

The film's Oscar-winning theme song would have you believe that the film is about friendship -- and Sully (John Goodman),  Mike (Billy Crystal), and Boo—are lovely -- but at heart, Monsters, Inc. is about a childhood so unspoiled that there are still monsters in the bedroom closet. Fundamentally, Monsters, Inc. is about innocence.  Children are becoming more cynical, Mr. Waternoose (James Coburn) tells us, and thus harder to make scream.

They're probably watching Shrek...

I'm mad at Shrek for substituting reference for wit, for making post-modernism palatable for the under-twelve set, and for spending most of its runtime winking at the audience. Monsters, Inc. certainly has its share of clever references—from the opening Stanley Donen-style credits, to Harryhausen's, to that Right Stuff entrance--but most of its humor is derived from exploring the cleverness of its central conceit: That there's a real Monster World behind the closet doors of children. The Pixar team explores and fleshes the brilliant concept out. Monsters, Inc. does real world-building that would do a lot of serious fantasy adventures proud.

The opening is masterful. First, we see a boy who imagines clothing on his chair is a monster. We all remember that experience, and we are instantly engrossed in his point of view. Then there's the comedic failure of a monster, who we learn is a trainee in a simulation. This provides quick access to our premise and some rapid-fire exposition that establishes the entire world and conflict (scream shortage, children are toxic) in record time. Finally, we learn that doors are magical in a very specific way, the last key to our appreciation of the world this film has built for us.

Like The Incredibles, this movie has an appreciation for the style and sensibility of early-to-mid 1960s films. You can see it in the opening credits, hear it in the soundtrack, and appreciate a tone that is modern but not post-modern, from back when modern was cool.

The characters are great and real lovely individual care is taken with each monster; Celia's snake-hair, Randall's chameleon changes, Abominable's fluffy fur. Each is unique and has internal consistency. Naturally, I love Boo, who is sweet, and playful, and very human indeed. Sully is voiced by and modeled on John Goodman, one of my favorite actors, so he's my favorite. And, yes, I do have little Sully and Boo mini-figures on my desk: Why do you ask?

The kind heart of this film carries through to the absolutely perfect closing shot. Too many movies want to finish those scenes; want to show you everything. I am reminded of the end of Shawshank Redemption, which cannot resist showing you a reunion that the original novella left hanging in the air. The moment before the reunion is so much more beautiful, and Monsters, Inc. has the courage to stay there, and let us see Sully's face, and have that be enough.

We scare because we care.

 

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Reader Comments (9)

While I do think Monsters Inc. is the better of the two films, in defense of Shrek, I think the film is way less cynical than you believe. It was the first of its kind, one of those rare animated films that surprised people at every turn not only with the references, but with the plot turns. No film before it had a female dragon falling in love with a donkey and the film managed to make that incredibly endearing? Also, the message of Shrek is a lovely one. It's about loving people no matter what they look like. How is that cynical? How is that being jaded? Yes, the film starts with a jaded protagonist who learns how to open up when he discovers a donkey who accepts him for who he is pretty much at first glance, and a princess who grows to love him (yes, I know, Beauty and the Beast, but the twist to that story works beautifully). I think Shrek gets a lot of flak for being the film that started this trend of pop culture references in movies, but Shrek itself is actually really funny and moving (which is more than I can say for the sequels).

But, the winner for me will always be Pixar. I re-watched Monsters Inc. recently and the scene where Boo watches Sully scare the simulation had me in tears, and I'm a huge fan of the final chase sequence with the doors (it's still one of the most original chase sequences I've ever seen). By the way, Pixar has dominated this category, so I wouldn't say that wit and warmth are dead. The 21st Century brought us Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 and even Dreamworks caught up with How to Train Your Dragon (and the Kung Fu Panda films don't have that much winking either), so while winking has become a staple of films in the 21st Century, I don't think it has killed wit and warmth.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

To be fair to DreamWorks, they've since started making movies with more heart and warmth ("How to Train Your Dragon," and even the "Kung Fu Panda" movies), but I"m glad I'm not the only one who realized the "Shrek" movies relied on post-modern jadedness, irony, and pop culture references (most of which are already dated when viewed today) to achieve acclaim. I suppose you could argue that Disney began that trend in the 90's with "Aladdin" and to a lesser extent "Hercules," but "Shrek" was the movie that really propelled that shift in American animation, so I guess it seemed fresh at the time, but it didn't help with its lasting appeal. Most people seem to have already lost interest in "Shrek" (I'm sure the sequels and spin-offs added to this), but I suspect it will only worsen over the years. 20 years from now, kids will fail to understand why "Shrek" was ever popular, but they'll still be able to appreciate the warmth and sincerity of "Monsters, Inc."

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Still one of my Top 5 Pixar films (along with Up, Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille), and far, far better than Shrek. One of the greatest endings of all time, for knowing exactly what to show and when to cut away. And I am in love with the credits sequence. I still don't get Shrek beating this for the Oscar. I mean, it kinda made sense at the time, but even with only a day's distance that win stunk.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

@Richter, my son was of the age in 2001 where we saw every animated film in theaters, so I was pretty aware of how fresh Shrek was in some ways, and I laughed at a lot of the jokes. It's not the overall film that is jaded, but the dialogue.

And I just can't give the film credit for loving past appearances when your example is Cameron Diaz. Sure, sometimes Fiona is an ogre, but sometimes she's not. It's like Shallow Hal--she's really Gwyneth Paltrow.

Along those lines, a lot more credit goes to Beauty and the Beast; Beauty fell in love with the Beast and wasn't sure about the handsome prince at all until she saw a spark of Beast in his eyes.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

That final shot really can't be overhyped. Even thinking about it now I get a little misty. Lovely filmmaking from beginning to end, but that last shot is just so delicate, so perfectly pitched, so rewarding that it's practically overwhelming in its quietness and its restraint.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTB

You see, this is where I have to give more credit to Shrek, because there it wasn't just Shrek falling in love with Fiona, but Fiona falling in love with Shrek and he never becomes the handsome prince. In Disney terms, or actually fairy tale terms, no matter how ugly a character is, he would always end up being the handsome prince. In the end, he's the prince. In Shrek, it's the reverse. Shrek doesn't become the handsome prince, Fiona becomes the ogre. I had never seen that before. The frog always became the prince, the Beast always became the Prince, and I found it refreshing that Shrek made the Prince into a villain (well, that was the sequel, but still). What if you didn't know it was Cameron Diaz? Did it help in Beauty and the Beast that you had no idea what Paige O'Hara or Robby Benson looked like? If you look beyond the casting, I still think the message in Shrek rings true.

Also, I think a lot of people relate to Shrek as the story of an outcast who was done trying to fit in and just wanted everyone to leave him alone. That's something a lot of children relate to, even plenty of grownups, and here we see the story of an ogre who told the world to shove it when it was clear to him that no one wanted him, and here he learns that he can find friendship and true love. I'm personally more moved by Shrek's relationship with Donkey (another outcast, Shrek also treats the theme of discrimination through the fairy tale creatures) and even though it does parody a lot of fairy tales, there's a beating heart somewhere in there. That is why it's a film I've never been able to dismiss.

By the way, let me say that I too loved the ending of Monsters Inc. It's just so perfect in how it captures the moment, not just Sully's face, but hearing Boo say Kitty. Like I said, Monsters Inc is the film that has held up the best, but as much as everyone here wants me to, I can't dismiss Shrek.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

To me, Fiona becoming an ogre betrayed all that had gone before. The idea of "what inside is what counts", and therefore a human and ogre could fall in love, was ruined by her turning out to be an ogre. It was as though Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? ended with Sidney Poitier turning out to be Paul Newman in blackface.

Monsters Inc is a world of uncynical joy. Love it.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott

My personal favorite Pixar movie. I remembered the 1st time I watched Monster Inc it had my tears at the end. Since then I've always wanted to have a baby just like Boo. Kind of wishful thinking at the time (was only 15 the first time I watched it), but now... why not??

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

So excited to see the Monsters Inc love here. This is my favorite Pixar movie. Tombeet, it's funny, Boo reminds me so much of my niece. This, incidentally, was her favorite movie when she was 6; she knew the exact moment when it gets too scary and she'd just quietly pick herself up and leave the room for a minute, peeking in to make sure it was okay again.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAR
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