Long after the toys are gone from the shops, long after the shameless commercialism of the Disney empire has moved on to another film, I think Monsters, Inc. will be considered one of their best. In addition to the amazing animation, the in-jokes, and the humour, it has a strong (and surprisingly subversive) moral and social message.
On the surface, Monsters, Inc is a cutesy buddy movie. But it actually goes much deeper than that. It's about one just monster and his struggles against a corrupt system, about the value of personal loyalty and the triumph of principle over practicality.
* * * Warning: Massive Quantities of Spoilers Ahead * * *
We only see glimpses of Monstropolis life in the film, but it's clearly a peaceful, prosperous city. Its citizens have plenty of material possessions - cars, TVs with little monster horns, apartments with nice views. They have enough extra to go out to sushi restaraunts. A fruit seller is doing well enough to give his wares away to his friends. It's a safe city, where children play on the sidewalks. It's a clean, pleasant place - no one even jaywalks.
The shortage of power presents a crisis, admittedly, but it has only a minor impact on the city. And no one really thinks about how their energy is derived from the screams of little children. They've been taught that human children are toxic creatures, something to be feared. No monster would think of a child the way they think of their dear little bundles of tentacles, nor pity a human tot crying in the night as they comfort their own wee critter. Children are dangerous, and the monsters who go into their world to extract Scream are brave indeed, saving Monstropolis from rolling blackouts.
Monsters, Inc. is a company of heroes, keeping Monstropolis safe and comfortable in a time of crisis.
The Principal Conflict
Although Randall is the visible antagonist in the film, Waternoose is the true villain. He is a paternal, jovial monster, who has earned the trust and loyalty of his staff. He runs the sort of company that does "bring your obscure relative to work day" (though he must have missed the memo on that particular one). He has a bunch of big softies on the scare floor, but he can still inspire them to go into what they believe to be mortal danger.
Like most important, powerful people, Waternoose knows the world is more complex than his underlings suspect. He knows, for instance, that children are not poisonous. He may tell trainees that "There's nothing more toxic than a human child. A single touch could kill you," but he picks Boo up himself before sending Sulley and Mike to exile.
Waternoose is driven by the desire to keep his company going, both because it has been his family for three generations, and because it is all that keeps the energy crisis in Monstropolis from becoming acute. As he himself says, "I'll kidnap a THOUSAND children before I let this company die, and I'll silence anyone who gets in my way!"
He probably sees himself as a good monster, driven to difficult measures by difficult times. No doubt he tells himself that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and that his cause is worth a few sacrifices (though not notably sacrifices he has to make himself). He is an ordinary monster doing terrible things - the perfect illustration of the banality of evil.
James P. Sullivan is an unlikely David to combat Waternoose's Goliath. He is not a revolutionary, just an normal Joe doing a normal days's work. He's the sort of guy who knows everyone by name and a pleasant word for them all. He's a people person, or rather a monsters' monster. What matters most to him is the web of relationships he has with his friends, his peers, and his boss.
Sulley combines this capacity for intense personal loyalty with real courage. He is capable of overcoming his fear of a human child enough to bond with Boo, to comfort her when she's frightened and to try to get her home. And he is brave enough to risk everything - his job, his friendship with Mike, even the company itself - to see her safely back into her own room. He refuses to send her back to the wrong place when Mike gets a door to somewhere with yodeling in the background. He won't even send her through the right door when he suspects that Randall is still a threat to her.
Partway through the film, Sulley has an uncomfortable experience when the monitor in the simulation room records him scaring a dummy. No doubt he has seen recordings of his roaring face before, and even been proud of how frightening he looks. But this time he sees himself through Boo's eyes, and realises that the children he scares are as upset as she is. This shift in attitude, again the product of empathy and courage, isn't really explored in the film. He does cheer Boo on when she attacks Randall and conquers her fear of him, despite the loss of scream this represents. But I don't know that Sulley would have been happy again on the scare floor, had things turned out differently.
Although the plot is rigged to create a happy ending, Sulley's doesn't realise that things will work out. He isn't thinking about whether Monsters, Inc. will stand or fall. He is simply and stubbornly determined to do what is right, to protect one innocent and helpless child from harm. He looks unhappy when Mike points out, "Sure we put the factory in the toilet, hundreds of people will be out of work now, not to mention the angry mob that'll come after us when there's no power." But he does't look like he regrets his choices, and he's clearly not so consumed by guilt that he can't think of a way out of the situation.
The Minor Characters
Very few people (or monsters) have Sulley's courage against the pressure of conformity. Most of us are more like Mike, just trying to get along in life. We want our creature comforts (like Mike's car), a chance at true love (like Celia), and a few laughs to get through the day.
Mike probably uses his humour to cover up a feeling of insecurity. Like everyone else, he admires Sulley. He relishes being the friend of Monsters, Inc.'s top scarer, telling off the two janitors who get too friendly ("You're making him lose his focus!"). He basks in reflected glory, getting Sulley to make reservations for him in a booked-up restaurant. Mike is not extraordinarily courageous or principled. He sees Boo as a threat to his normal life, and to his friendship with Sulley. So he leaps at whatever chance he can to get her out of their way, whether it be through the wrong door, or through the right one under Randall's aegis.
But when Sulley seems to choose Boo over him in Nepal, Mike shows real greatness of character. He returns to the monster world, apologises to Sulley for making him choose at all, and helps his friend get Boo back home. He is not brave monster on his own, but he is a good friend in a crisis. He does the right thing in the end.
Randall the pseudo-chameleon is the most disappointing character in the film. He is openly evil, willing to "dispose of" anyone who gets in his way. He ruthlessly abuses his sidekick Fungus, and his plans for world (or Monsters, Inc.) domination are gloriously unformed.
In short, he is a cardboard characterisation, only suited to draw attention away from the true villain of the piece. I shall waste no more prose on him.
I think I'll find this film very helpful when answering questions about twentieth-century history from my son when he's older. It can be hard to convey to a child how an ordinary society, for instance Germany in the 30's, could be founded on cruelty, or how fear was used to dehumanise a people they wanted to exploit. I would like to teach him to recognise the pitfalls of power that Waternoose exemplifies, and raise him to have the courage of his own convictions like Sulley.
I know that the scriptwriters didn't write all this into the film, at least not deliberately. But the plot rings true because these characteristics, and these forces, are part of human nature.