We’re only a few days away from a very exciting time of year for Pixar fans, the release of their newest film. For their fourteenth effort, as you are no doubt aware, Pixar is looking back with a prequel to Monsters, Inc. called Monsters University, in which we see how Mike Wazowski, James P. Sullivan and the rest of the Monstropolis crew became the adult monsters they were in the 2001 movie through their collegial exploits. And so, why not spend today’s column looking back at that original movie for another monthly look at a Pixar moment? The world of Monstropolis, sometimes more teased at than revealed in full, is a fascinating parallel to humanity, yet its apex is a series of doors to our world.
The rules of Monstropolis and the titular factory are laid out pretty clearly early on: the fears children have harbored for generations about monsters hiding in their closets are true. Monsters do scare kids on a nightly basis, only because they have to so that their world will have power. They enter into the human world through closet doors, all stashed in the endless Monsters, Inc. factory. A scarer goes in after his sidekick enters in a code for the specific door, which could lead to a kid in the United States, in France, in Nepal, or anywhere else on the globe. In the climax of Monsters, Inc., Sulley and Mike desperately try to bring their inadvertent human charge Boo back to her closet door so she can be kept far away from the machinations of the villainous Randall Boggs and Henry J. Waternoose, the former of whom is in hot pursuit. The mode of travel in this chase is, appropriately enough, the doors themselves. There are an infinite number of portals, in all shapes, sizes, and colors, all leading to a strange new place. The sequence is fast-paced, zany, funny, and breathless, a microcosm of the film as a whole.
Like many of Pixar’s films, Monsters, Inc. has become a mainstay at the Disney theme parks. In Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort, you can enter a dark ride of the whole film; in Tomorrowland at Florida’s Magic Kingdom, you can walk onto the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor for an interactive comedy show inspired by the film’s conclusion. There have, however, always been rumors of a roller coaster themed to the movie, and to what scene? What other scene could there be than the one where Mike, Sulley, and the consistently excited and chipper Boo take what’s almost literally a roller-coaster ride through the curlicued tracks of doors in the Monsters, Inc. factory? If Cars and A Bug’s Life get their own lands in Anaheim, if Remy the rat can appear in the France pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, and if the Toy Story characters appear in just about every Disney theme park around the United States (let alone the globe), why not a Monsters, Inc. roller coaster? Perhaps the fear is that no physical recreation could ever come close to accurately delivering the same experience.
Even on Blu-ray—perhaps especially so, as the animation detail becomes even clearer and crisper—the exhilarating feeling as we, through a handful of point-of-view shots, ride along with Mike, Sulley, and Boo through the doors is still present. Certainly, the scene offers itself up to roller-coaster designers as a blueprint, but could anything come close to rivaling the first time we slid down the track with our monstrous friends to parts unknown? More to the point, what ends up bringing this climactic chase to the next level is not just that the monsters jump from track to track, from door to door, to evade capture, but that they go inside countless doorways, if only for a few seconds. What would a ride through the Monsters, Inc. door vault be like without us also falling sideways into an apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or failing to remember to slide open a door in a Japanese bedroom, or dashing through the sands of Hawaii?
The allure of creating a new attraction will be, most likely, too great. The rumors will one day become reality, because someone may feel that Monsters, Inc. doesn’t have enough of a presence at the Disney theme parks compared to other Pixar films; or because such a roller-coaster (possibly even one that goes upside down, a rarity for Disney) will be a counterattack to all the rival theme parks’ thrill-ride roller-coasters. But there’s nothing like the original for sheer excitement, borne from the fact that we don’t know what’s coming next. Seeing as Monsters, Inc. is a Disney movie, of course, it’s not hard to imagine that by the end, Mike and Sulley will have defeated Randall Boggs and gotten Boo home safely. As our heroes jump into one door or slide into another, however, the pleasure becomes the journey instead of the destination. Sure, they’ll get Boo back home, but how and when and through how many doors will they have to travel to get there?
At its best, Monsters, Inc. is inventive, even more so than the films that came before it. The first two Toy Story movies and A Bug’s Life start from a fairly similar place, in that they both take place in the world of humans, but focus on non-human characters living in presumably peaceful communities that mirror our own. (Like Toy Story and, especially, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc. gets a lot of mileage in the first act out of making monsters act like humans in how they go to work, their morning routine, etc.) In these opening scenes, the movie is fairly creative and clever, overloading itself with gags that also give the animators room to stretch and come up with some dazzling and goofy-looking monsters, made all the less scary because we’re watching them traipse, slither, or clomp to work instead of peep out from under our beds. But in the climax, the creativity becomes less jokey and more intense, serving the movie a lot better than as the source of throwaway gags. Certainly, it’s witty to see the various locales of the human world that Mike and Sulley hop into, if only for a moment. But there’s a purpose to the intricacies of this sequence, as opposed to the intricacies of Monstropolis, a place that we honestly don’t get to spend that much time in. In a way, Monsters, Inc. only truly expands its world once its characters enter ours.
As Mike and Sulley gradually leave behind the comforting trappings of Monstropolis, they also gradually lose their confidence, something to watch for in Monsters University. (On the one hand, based on the available trailers, it seems like the new film will stay put squarely in the monster world, but then, going to college can be an experience where anyone’s confidence evaporates quickly, so the theme may repeat itself somewhat.) Mike and Sulley are confident that children are dangerous to monsters, that the only way to power Monstropolis is to harness their screams, that their boss has their best interests at heart; all of those notions are proven wrong quickly. Diving through the doors through the infinite factory in the climax is something of a last-ditch effort—it’s an almost literal hunt for a needle in a haystack—and the only way to regain the struts in their steps. Mike and Sulley—Mike moreso—aren’t just confident, they want a bit of control in their lives. Boo, as cute and adorable as she is, represents the antithesis of control, as does the very idea of diving through scads of closet doors to get her home safely.
Leaving aside any deeper meaning or character motivations—Sulley’s shift from gruff scarer to paternal protector is most obvious, of course—it really can’t be emphasized enough how much fun the Monsters, Inc. climax is. Knowing, as we do, that the characters have to achieve a happy ending of some kind allows the sequence to play out tensely, but not so infused with suspense for us to dread the outcome. Pete Docter’s decision to put us right on top of these characters’ shoulders, soaring through the factory headlong, with no idea when the ride will stop, is one of the smartest in the film. One reason why Monsters, Inc. as a whole works is because we relate to these monstrous characters. Sulley may scare us initially, but his parenting instincts and attitude towards Boo endears him to us. But the most literal way of making us relate to these characters is putting us through the same ringer, forcing us to hop from track to track with them as they search for even a temporary breather, let alone salvation.
Monsters, Inc. is, perhaps, not as profound or affecting a film as some of Pixar’s later efforts like Up or WALL-E. (Though, only two days out from Father’s Day, it’s a very fitting movie to watch this time of year, even if there wasn’t a prequel opening this Friday.) It is boundlessly clever, though, rarely stopping to pause to slow down. The gags come at us fast and furious, often laced throughout the manically told story, interwoven carefully. So it’s fitting that the film’s highest peak, its most memorable moment, is literally fast-paced, a legitimate theme-park attraction nestled beneath the jokes and emotion. Perhaps that’s what makes this sequence stand out so much; other modern movies that crescendo with relentless action may be more intense, but those movies don’t often send their characters onto what amounts as an unstoppable roller coaster whose final destination, even if there are worldwide stops along the way, is truly unknown.