Fur, Comedy, and Lawsuits: Monsters, Inc.

By 2000, Pixar was doing well enough that Steve Jobs finally—finally—agreed to let the company move from its then-shoddy offices in a questionable neighborhood to a brand new production facility. Taking advice from old Disney hands, who remembered the way that an earlier change in production facilities had led to less communication and creativity between artists, Pixar created a large, open space that would, the company hoped, encourage conversation and collaboration. And just in time—Pixar had new projects in the works that presented new technical challenges, including animating individual strands of fur and creating a new underwater world. No longer content with studying fantastic parts of the regular world, Pixar was now ready to create an entirely new world of its own, inhabited by monsters. Friendly monsters, at that.

If the studio could manage the fur.

Pixar’s Pete Docter initially pitched the concept of a monster movie back in 1994, as part of a general pitch session intended to come up with potential ideas for the studio’s next three promised films for Disney. As Docter later explained, he spent his childhood convinced that yes, yes, monsters really did live in his closet—a common childhood fear (though in my case, those monsters were under the bed, not in a closet, and don’t try to tell me that the monsters weren’t there because THEY TOTALLY WERE). The concept of monsters in the closet (or under the bed) just waiting to come out and attack small children seemed a natural follow-up to the concept of Toy Story, where toys came to life. But although John Lasseter embraced the idea with enthusiasm, he decided—for the first time in Pixar history—to step away from the project, leaving the monster film in the hands of Pete Docter, allowing Lasseter to focus on overseeing all of Pixar—not to mention the production nightmare of Toy Story 2.

Docter spent the next two years tinkering with the story. His initial concept—that of a 30 year man still tormented by the monsters in his closet—was eventually tossed out in favor of a tale that would instead focus on a growing relationship between a small child and a monster—and on the monster’s world, a world filled with mostly friendly monsters who shared several human characteristics, such as regular jobs and a need for something to keep their appliances on. The new focus would allow Pixar to explore an entirely new world, a world which, bonus, offered the potential of a new toy line of cute and cushy monsters. It would be a world that would both echo our own while also drawing power from it.

The concept of friendly monsters dates back to at least ancient times, with later fairy tales offering a range of monsters from evil to friendly to (in the case of Beauty and the Beast) potential marriage partners. More recently, Sesame Street had popularized the idea of friendly monsters living on the same street as real humans, willing to help small children learn math, the alphabet, and bits of Spanish. But an animated film exploring an entire world of monsters—many with fur—was new.

Monsters, Inc. was not, of course, the first film to showcase computer animated, realistic looking, moving fur—that credit belongs to the talking animals of the 1995 Babe, who required significant CGI and fur work, winning the film an Oscar for Best Special Effects. But it was the first computer animated/CGI project to require quite so much fur—2,320,413 separate pieces of hair on Sulley, one of the two main monsters of the film. (Not at all incidentally, this is why Mike and Randall, the other two most prominent monsters in the film, have no hair or fur whatsoever.) Pixar animators not only had to make all of this fur move, but they had to account for the way that hair can cast shadows on other hairs. And they had to finish all of this in a more or less reasonable time period, which, the way Disney saw it, meant by late 2001, no ifs, ands or buts—even if, over at the main Disney studios, Disney animators were struggling to keep up with their own deadlines.

To solve the technical problem, Pixar turned to a technical solution: more computer processors. As it was, Toy Story 2 had needed 1400 processors. Monsters, Inc. needed 3500. It was enough—just barely enough—to allow animators to create colorful, realistic looking fur and a final elaborate chase scene and, for good measure, to add something that the first three Pixar films didn’t have: a T-shirt that wrinkled as its wearer moved. Pixar animators were thrilled. How much of this was appreciated by audiences remains an open question, but Monsters, Inc. did represent a significant step forward in computer animation.

Meanwhile, following the success of booking celebrity voices for the two Toy Story films and A Bug’s Life, Pixar hired comedians John Goodman and Billy Crystal to play the main two characters, Sulley and Mike, and Steve Buscemi to play the conniving Randall, along with a number of other famous voices now eager to work on a Pixar film.

For Boo, the toddler, Pixar turned from the usual animation practice of having an adult voice childlike sounds, and instead, found an actual child of about that age, Mary Gibbs, daughter of story artist Rob Gibbs. Mary Gibbs, then three, was just a touch too young to read a script, so Pixar sound engineers simply followed the child with a microphone, catching the appropriate sounds and matching them to the animation, until screams were necessary, at which point, animators encouraged her to scream. (There’s an adorable picture of her and John Goodman at the film premiere floating around the internet, and a rather less adorable picture of Pixar staff trying to get the small child to scream on cue.) Mary Gibbs, I should note, did survive the experience, continuing on from this to voice other children’s roles for Pixar before choosing a less screaming life as a yoga instructor.

If, with the exception of toddler Boo, Pixar stayed with their usual method of hiring celebrity voices, they did try something else new for this film: assigning each character a specific lead animator—something that had been Disney policy since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but something that Pixar had previously avoided in favor of having lead animators focus on specific scenes. It was a method that Pixar would continue to toy with in future films: for this specific film, the process helped lead animator John Kahrs figure out how to make a massive figure like Sulley move quickly—something else relatively new to animation.

After all this—a shift in production facilities, new computers, following around a small child, and a different approach to animating characters—is the film any good?

Well, it’s definitely cute.

Monsters, Inc. tells the story of Sulley and Mike, who work together with other monsters to collect screams from small children to power up their world. As their company motto states, “We scare because we care!” Alas the screams—and thus the power—are getting harder and harder to get; as the monsters note: “Kids these days. They just don’t get scared the way they used to.” (To be fair, this is in part because kids these days are getting to see fun stuff like Monsters, Inc. instead of terrifying stuff like Dumbo on the big screen, but I digress.)

Exactly how all this works is an excellent question, and I also can’t help wondering what the monsters did with the screams of small children before they industrialized their world and needed to power up a lot of lamps: did they use those screams to start fires? Power windmills? Not that anyone in the monster world has time to answer this, since—GASP—a small human child (eventually named Boo by the monsters) has entered the monster world, threatening to doom every monster there. If Sully and Mike can’t return the kid to her own world, their world may be doomed—or at the very least, their jobs are, which is just as serious. And they might get exiled.

The rest of the film focuses on their various hijinks, as well as their discovery that their world can be powered more efficiently by children’s laughter, instead of their screams—a discovery that works both to save the monsters from having to live without power (as a thorough urbanite, I gasp) and to reassure the smaller members of the audience that no, monsters aren’t really out to get them. Well, not now, anyway.

It’s all cute, often funny, and yet, at the end, somewhat unsatisfying. This is partly, of course, because it’s a Pixar film, but one that lacks the emotional depth of many of the other Pixar films, and partly because, despite the rich possibilities offered by a world inhabited by monsters, Monsters, Inc. never really tries to explore any of this. The monster world is just a light parody of our own, offering the same things: books, cars, fine restaurants that take months to get a reservation unless you’re a celebrity, paperwork, and so on. The monsters look different than humans do, but that’s it. Amusing, certainly, but almost a waste of the concept. To his credit, John Lasseter would later insist that Zootopia, essentially another parody of our world, make at least an attempt at figuring out how a world inhabited by talking animals would differ from our world, but in Monsters, Inc. it all feels rather like a lost opportunity—especially after the explorations of the worlds of toys and bugs in the previous Pixar films.

Beyond this, Monsters, Inc. suffers from a more fundamental storytelling problem: that although the background and the world of Monsters, Inc. change, the characters themselves barely do. Sully is still a tall, goodnatured monster; Mike is still a short, neurotic monster. They continue to work as partners, only changing who gets to enter the bedrooms of small children.

Only Boo gets any real development—shifting from a babbling little girl terrified of monsters in her closet to a babbling little girl unafraid of monsters in her closet—even missing one of them very very much. But throughout the film, Boo is more of an object than a character, someone to be either used or rescued. So this development, while welcome, does little to add any depth to the film.

On the other hand, Monsters, Inc. does give us Roz, the nightmarish bureaucratic monster who manages to not only terrorize her staff, but also—with the accidental help of Sully and Mike—shut down business corruption and stop an attempt to torture a small child.

So the film has compensations.

Pixar had learned something from the frantic last minute overwork for Toy Story 2, which meant less of a scramble to get Monsters, Inc. to Disney by their deadline. For a terrifying moment, however, it seemed that all of Pixar’s work would be wasted, as Disney and Pixar found themselves facing a preliminary injunction against releasing Monsters, Inc.—with the hearing scheduled for November 1, 2001, just one day before the film’s planned theatrical release.

The timing was accidental: the injunction had been sought by songwriter Lori Madrid months earlier, and just happened to land on the pre-release date thanks to a heavy court caseload. Disney attorneys and Pixar witnesses explained, in depth, just how much money had been spent in marketing the film already—$3.5 million just on a premiere and special screenings, not including trailers, posters and a huge publicity blitz. Failing to release the film on its release date would, Disney executives argued, create a snowball effect, not just on the initial box office receipts but on later DVD sales and ancillary revenue. The argument convinced the judge, who dismissed the injunction on the basis that it would cause far too much financial harm to Disney. (Not to mention the potential emotional harm to parents who had promised to bring small children to the film.) A year later, the judge dismissed the suit, saying the film and Lori Madrid’s poem did not have that much in common—even if Madrid had shopped her poem/story to Chronicle Books in 1999, which had later printed a Monsters, Inc. art book in 2001.

(Note: although Chronicle Books had published Star Wars books under a licensing agreement with Lucasfilm, the prior owners of Pixar, Disney and Pixar attorneys note that by 1999, Monsters, Inc. was already well into development; in addition, Pixar and Chronicle Books only began discussing the art book in 2000, after Monsters, Inc. was in production.)

A second copyright infringement suit was launched against Pixar, Disney and Chronicle Books in 2002 by artist Stanley Miller, alleging that the character designs for Sulley and Mike were based on characters he had developed for a potential animated film—and that Pixar’s art department had seen his cartoons. (Pixar’s art department did have at least some of Miller’s cartoons; whether they had seen the specific cartoons alleged to have inspired Sulley and Mike was another question.) In this case, the judge did not dismiss the suit; Pixar and Disney settled for an undisclosed amount.

Despite the near-injunction and the financial settlement, Monsters, Inc. was another financial success for both Disney and Pixar. The film garnered mostly positive reviews, and eventually brought in $577.4 million at the box office—at the time, below only The Lion King, and—perhaps even more importantly from the point of view of a still-irritated John Lasseter—well above the $484.4 million brought in by rival Shrek that same year. (Shrek took its revenge the following year, when it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture, leaving Monsters, Inc. clutching the Oscar for Best Song.)

Better prepared this time, Disney also released a line of merchandise, including toys, clothing, mugs (some of which, I must say, were/are kinda creepy looking) and video games. Sully and Mike made appearances at the theme parks, both in Character Meet and Greets and Parades. Three Disney parks created Monsters, Inc. attractions: Mike & Sulley To the Rescue at Disney California Adventure; Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek at Tokyo Disneyland; and Monsters, Inc. Laugh Track at the Magic Kingdom, which incidentally ended up employing one of my friends as a comedy monster.

It all was enough to make Disney quite excited about the potential of another Monsters film—if, admittedly, one to be made by their in-house computer animation department, not Pixar, a company they were on increasingly poor terms with. But before that, Disney and Pixar had a few more contracted films to produce and distribute together. Including a film about a little clownfish.

Finding Nemo, coming up next month.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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