I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you I cannot remember a life without “Monsters, Inc.” The film is almost as old as I am, and all I remember about my first viewing is that it was my grandpa’s doing. Over the years, he introduced my sister and me to many films, but “Monsters, Inc.” may have been his greatest triumph (second only to “High School Musical,” which I initially refused to watch and then adopted as my sole personality trait). “Monsters, Inc.” references pepper our daily speech even when we haven’t done a good, proper rewatch in years. Like my grandfather, “Monsters, Inc.” was always right there when I needed it. Even as an adult, I maintain that “Monsters, Inc.” is one of the greats — a film like no other.
The filmbros have probably stopped reading by now, objecting to the very premise of this article with the ever-demeaning refrain, “But it’s a kids’ movie!” It is a movie that children can and should watch, but it departs from conventions of the “kids’ movie” genre by refusing to speak down to its younger audience, opting to show instead of tell. The audience comes to understand that the iconic duo of Mike (Billy Crystal, “When Harry Met Sally”) and Sulley (John Goodman, “Roseanne”) work as “Scarers” to harvest energy from children’s fearful screams. We also learn that children are considered toxic not because a character stares into the camera and says as much or through bland and overly simplified dialogue like “ready to go scare children to provide power?” but through a commercial for the eponymous company and Mike and Sulley’s morning routine, where Sulley can be seen practicing different scare tactics and avoiding contact with an imaginary child. “Monsters, Inc.” doesn’t simplify dialogue, cues or narrative for the kids, and it validates their fears. It draws their attention through the widely relatable fear of the monster in the closet or under the bed but doesn’t establish monsters as amorphous evil things. Instead, the monsters the children fear are sentient beings who also fear them.
“Monsters, Inc.” is also, and this is incredibly high praise, NOT predictable. (Which should be the bare minimum, but isn’t: We all knew the people telling the story in “The Notebook” were Noah and Allie). “Monsters, Inc.,” on the other hand, is full of plot twists: There’s not a single time you can easily say what’s going to happen next if you haven’t seen it before. Mike and Sulley find themselves in the Himalayas with a Yeti? Didn’t have that on my bingo card.
Even the jokes and bits aren’t basic or eye-roll worthy, nor do they cater exclusively to the young audience. When the scarers first take to the scare floor, they walk in slow motion, backlit, while dramatic music plays in reference to “Apollo 13.” Later, Randall’s (Steve Buscemi, “Boardwalk Empire”) sidekick Fungus (Frank Oz, “the Muppet Show”) declines Mike’s pleas to talk out their conflict with “Sorry Wazowski, Randall said I’m not allowed to fraternize with victims of his evil plot!” This kind of vocabulary isn’t indicative of kid humor but a refusal to format the film and its humor so only kids can enjoy it. Even bits like the “put that thing back where it came from or so help me” musical generate laughs for all ages. It’s funny in different ways that everyone can appreciate, albeit at different stages of life — this is what provides the movie’s longevity.
“Monsters, Inc.” is also relentlessly clever. As the audience sees the Scarers prepare to enter their next door for the very first time, each monster prepares differently: some put about 10 extra eyes into a trapezoid-shaped purple head, others brush their oversized teeth with an appropriately oversized brush (we’re not trying to scare the kids with our morning breath) and others inflate their apparently retractable spikes. In the locker room after work, Mike asks to borrow some “odorant” from Sulley instead of deodorant. The ends of Celia’s hair (made up of several smaller snakes) rattle when she’s angry. One sanitation engineer monster tosses the dust he just swept up into his mouth, while another sneezes and sends his newspaper up in flames. And, of course, you have the running gag of Mike being cut out of or otherwise covered up in magazine images, employee of the month photos and commercial footage. They’re like Easter eggs that don’t reference a prior work: smart details that any viewer can appreciate and notice even more with each subsequent rewatch. This abundance of creativity and attention to detail draws the audience (ANY audience) in.
Some of the elements that make “Monsters, Inc.” great are things that children can benefit from, but not fully appreciate at their age. When I rewatched “Monsters, Inc.” as an adult, I was struck by the utter lack of a standard, “desirable” body type and the near erasure of gender norms altogether. Gender is somewhat mapped onto Celia (Jennifer Tilly, “Liar Liar”), who sports lipstick and three very long eyelashes, and Roz (Bob Peterson, “Finding Nemo”), who despite any other remotely human anatomy inexplicably has boobs. However, traditional indicators of “feminine” beauty or a hegemonic masculine body more or less disappear in this world where each monster looks wildly different, and no hierarchy is imposed upon that difference.
Not only are beauty standards nonexistent, but the world of “Monsters, Inc.” is also arguably free of the gender discrimination (and the inextricable sexual orientation discrimination) that permeates our society and thus dictates most of the media it produces. Heteronormativity perseveres through the relationship between Mike and Celia, but is otherwise not present at all. This begs the question — if the film contains only one “straight” relationship (around which the film does not revolve) is it heteronormativity that appears, or is it merely heterosexuality, which is, on its own, inoffensive? Many of these terms are foreign to any five-year-old, and maybe even to the average high schooler, but still — how freeing it is to see just one film, especially from the early aughts, whose structure has nothing to do with upholding the gender binary and where gender is never the butt of the joke. Young children understand that to “do something like a girl” is negative long before they understand these terms. They may not notice the absence of that derogatory attitude or rigid binary structures, but they absolutely do notice its presence in other media. In this way and many others, “Monsters, Inc.” not only stands out from the crowd as exemplary, but provides a revolutionary moment of relief in an endless sea of media that reproduce and reinforce gender discrimination.
So you don’t think I’m too biased, “Monsters, Inc.” is not perfect, and I’m willing to admit it. For starters, most of the monsters are naked, but a few of them wear clothes or at least a few articles of clothing — Mr. Waternoose (James Coburn, “American Gun”) wears a full suit, Celia wears a dress and Roz wears only a sweater — but you never see most of the Scarers wear more than a hard hat? There is no established norm on clothes versus no clothes, and I won’t lie, it unsettles me a little bit. But for this slightly puzzling inconsistency, it’s a carefully crafted work anyone can enjoy. Even without the ridiculous detail, the riveting plot or inventive worldbuilding, it will always hold a special place in my heart. Although I’m sharing “Monsters, Inc.” with the endless recesses of the internet and thus a wider population of people than I can probably fathom, in my mind “Monsters, Inc.” will always be my grandpa’s and mine.
TV Beat Editor Emmy Snyder can be reached at email@example.com.