Jun 14 2012 1:00pm

Forget Sunscreen! Everything You Need to Know in Life You Can Learn From Monsters, Inc.

Like the best kids’ books, the best kids’ movies work on multiple levels, and Monsters, Inc., Pixar’s fourth feature-length film, is no exception.

To recap Monsters, Inc. (and if I must say it—arrrgh, thar be spoilers ahead): Monsters James P. (Sulley) Sullivan and Mike Wazowski are best friends (and coworkers) who, along with a myriad of other monsters, live and work in the bustling city of Monstropolis. Denizens of Monstropolis are facing an energy crisis. Their main source of power, called Scream, is sourced from the terrified screams of the numerous children that monsters like Mike and Sulley scare for a living at Monsters, Incorporated. But with the increasingly terrifying state of the world, kids have bigger fears on their mind, and the monsters in their closets just aren’t as scary as they used to be. Fewer scares = fewer screams = energy shortage.

Released in late 2001, Monsters Inc. was completed before the events of September 11th unfolded. The film certainly wasn’t designed to be a response to those events. Yet the overarching confront-your-fears messaging was spot-on for those raw first few months that buzzed with color-coded emergency warnings and media-fueled anxiety. So it was comforting, for both kids and adults alike, to watch Monsters’ camped-up CDA (Child Detection Agency) SWAT teams overreact to a child’s tiny sock, or see the news anchors panicking on air while a graphic bearing a NY Post-esque “KID-TASTROPHE” headline looms behind them.

But more than a decade later, removed from that shadow, Monsters, Inc. still shines. There’s no denying that the film is geared toward kids—a wonderfully imagined world, inhabited by a colorful cast of barely-scary-even-when-they-are-trying monsters, where silly sight gags abound. But take a closer look and you’ll see that the underlying messages in Monsters, Inc. aren’t just for kids, they apply pretty damn well to those of us in the post-(post-post-post-) kindergarten set as well.  

It’s no accident, it relies on clever writing, something the folks at Pixar seem to value. So much of the comedy in Monsters depends on wry observations about corporate America, that—although kids might get some of the jokes in theory (what is homework, if not a TPS report with training wheels)—it’s clear that the real targets are the adults: Isn’t there always at least one Roz or Randall (who incidentally bears a striking resemblance to the monster of my nightmares, the house centipede) at every job? Aren’t meaningless performance evaluations and dreaded paperwork de rigueur in most offices?

Naturally, the strongest message in Monsters, Inc. is that of confronting one’s fears—whether they be literal (the monsters in your closet) or figurative (the “monsters” in your workplace). While Boo’s triumph over the ever-plotting Randall is relatively quick and clear-cut; Sulley’s victories are much more nuanced. He and Mike risk everything to expose the conspiracy that goes straight to the top of Monsters, Inc. But by taking on the bad guys, they also shut down the company, leaving lots of jobless monsters and threatening all of Monstropolis’s power supply. Sticking up for yourself is tough enough when you’re a kid, tougher still when you’re an adult and you have a myriad of additional responsibilities to consider. But in Monsters, Inc. the message is clear: even though it was scary, the most important thing was that Boo, Sulley and Mike took that stand at all.

Monsters, Inc. is also about—to paraphrase the old Apple ads—thinking differently. At the start of the film, Sulley’s purely a company man, whose goals and mind-set are exactly in-line with those of Monsters, Inc. But through his interactions with Boo, Sulley begins to see the world differently. This change in world-view allows him to tackle the problem of the Monstropolis energy crises, and by the end of the film, Sulley literally turns Monsters, Inc. into a laugh factory. While this probably won’t happen where you work, it’s a great message (for young and old) about how true innovation occurs when people approach old problems from a new angle.

So whether you are watching Monsters, Inc. for the first time or the thousandth, whether you are watching for the slapstick comedy or the hidden humor, try to keep these things in mind: confront the fears that hold you back, try to think outside the box, and okay, fine—wear sunscreen.


When Nancy Lambert doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, she’s busy cutting down restless draugrs in Skyrim and putzing around online. She knows the Baz thing dates her.

Travis Butler
1. tbutler
I have a hard time coming up with anything to add to the wonderful theme analysis (especially the need to tackle adult responsibilities and the costs in doing so), so I'll just add a few detail observations:

Mike was sometimes over-the-top and cliched in an annoying way, but in the end I think he worked well as a foil for Sully, and his journey towards selflessness was probably good for the kids.

I loved the traditionally-animated opening/closing credits; they struck just the right note of creativity for me, and reminded me of a lot of classic 'stylized' animated credits sequences, ranging from classic Disney live-action in the 60's to things like Ruthless People in the 80's.

Roz's ultimate role (avoiding spoilers) was a nice twist.

The chase scene in the doors room gets called out as an action classic in more than one review, and I agree wholeheartedly; there isn't a whole lot of plot significance to it, but it's amazingly evocative.
Stefan Jones
2. Stefan Jones
The word "sweet" comes to mind when I think of Monsters, Inc. Sweet as in charming, and "sweet!" as in "yeah, cool, sweet!"

It may not be the absolute best Pixar film, but I believe it is the best balanced in appeal. It is a work not of genius, but of geniuses. An awe-inspiring thing.

The scare-factory workplace could only have been created by folks who grew up reading MAD Magazine. I can imagine Al Jaffee coming up with a scenario like that.

I love that this is a film about working stiffs, both in characters and actions and in the scenery . . . note the personal items and clutter layered over the high-tech door workstation areas.

I love the final shot, with Sulley's radiant smile on re-finding Boo.


Coda to the Toy Story 2 discussion.

A few years back one of the network news organizations aired a segment about a rare reporter-visit to North Korea. One of the places the reporter visited was an elite school. She asks the students what their favorite movie was. "Toy Story 2!" says one.

Like, wow?

First, how did that happen? DVD smuggling? An illicit screening of a Korean-dubbed print?

Second . . . what does this say about the state of the Hermit Kingdom?

And third, what did that kid make of that glowing fantasy?
Scott Silver
3. hihosilver28
Ooh, the door chase is one of my absolute favorites. I just love the moment when Boo laughs and ALL of the doors light up. Brilliant moment.
James Whitehead
4. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
We can still watch this one as a family. Took my eldest two to see it when it came out; my daughter mentioned last night that she remembered going , though she was only 5 - CNBC has a program on Pixar last night, rather good actually).

Love the music, the plot, the attention to details (e.g., Celia's hair also wearing 'cones of shame'), and the 'out-takes.'

One of the best monster-buddy movies out there.

Stefan Jones
5. Stefan Jones
I bought the Monsters, Inc. DVD. Not something I generally do, because I don't rewatch movies too often.

But I feel vindicated, because I have a sister who until recently hadn't seen a SINGLE Pixar film. Her former boyfriend hated Disney to the extent of never wanting anything by them in the house in any form.

I showed her Ratatouille. We watched UP with my other sister's family. Now I'm going to loan her my Monsters, Inc. DVD.
Stefan Jones
6. Roz
I've got my eye on you Wazowski!
Stefan Jones
7. seth e.
When I saw the door chase scene I thought, wow, if only Borges could have lived to see this.
Stefan Jones
8. Hedgehog Dan
WOW! That is the best analysis I have read for ages! It is deep, profound, intelligent, clever and sweet - it showed me, why I love Monsters Inc. Thank you very much! :)))))))
Stefan Jones
9. AlBrown
I enjoyed this one when it first came out, and have enjoyed it even more upon rewatching. There are many layers to what is going on, which makes for a very rich story. The buddy aspect was a big part of what I liked about it. I hear a sequel is in the works, and I would be delighted to see that.
And I love the amusement park rides it spawned, both the ride at Disneyland, and especially the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor. I love the way it includes audience members, and especially enjoyed the time when my granddaughter next to me had a featured role in the fun.
Noneo Yourbusiness
10. Longtimefan
This is one of the best of the Pixar movies. It is only ok as one of the Disney California Adventure rides. :)

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