I present to you the 4th installment of Tyro’s series, Pixar: The Storytellers. This week looks at Monster’s Inc.
As I stated in my Toy Story article, credits sequences are the perfect place to position the audience for the film. Monsters, Inc. (herein: MI) doesn’t use a Randy Newman song that virtually lays out the controlling idea of the story, rather, given we’re expecting monsters, it sets us up for what kind of monsters, and what kind of world to expect. Firstly, monsters behind doors. Secondly, they’re pretty stupid and scared themselves. But importantly – it’s a fun world – it’s telling the audience, don’t worry, these monsters? They don’t scare. It’s all done to a groovy, toe-tapping inducing jazz number. We’re relaxed, smiling – on the with the film . . .
. . . of course, what we’re greeted with is a pretty scary opening few shots. Then the comedy comes, and we’re laughing. Recall, if you will, my praising of the way Toy Story masterfully parsed out its opening exposition. It was all natural. Is MI’s exposition done naturally? The trouble is that we’re not just in a kid’s bedroom, where toys come to life, we’re in another world, where monsters live, and there’s some place called “Monsters, Inc.” Other than that, we know nothing. So not only do we have to be shown the character relationships, dynamics and politics of this world, but we also have to be shown the rules of the world itself. We need to know that Monsters, Inc. is a power factory, it gets power from harnessing children’s screams, which is achieved by scarers, and – importantly setting up the underlying plot – there’s a scare shortage because children aren’t that easily scared any more.
All that, and the character information. Sci-fi films achieve this through an opening crawl, just laying out the information we need to get the world so we can just be thrown right into the fun from the off. How does MI achieve it? By trainees in a testing room . . . away from the principle characters. The first thing that normally means is that it’s going to be a flat scene in terms of progressing the story (it neither changes the protagonist’s values to the positive or negative) because they’re not in it. But what MI does too is to get Waternoose to tell the required exposition to the trainees. He literally tells them what screams are for, how they’re got etc etc. But if they’re applying for a job at the factory . . . presumably they know already, and that’s why they applied. It’s not a drastic crime against storytelling by any means, and if you’re going to have flat scenes anywhere in you’re story, the start is the best place because the pace is usually pretty slow anyway, people are still finding their seats. The writers also made this scene a setup for when Waternoose is caught by Mike, so it does have a use, just not for progressing the story.
We then cut to our two main characters, though note that it’s Sulley who is really the protagonist. Though Mike joins in with Sulley, it’s the latter who makes all the decisions, and goes on the emotional journey. And what happens in this scene? Again, nothing to turn the story. Instead, we’re told yet more exposition via a TV commercial. Another flat way of telling us the information, though they got away with it by using the joke of Mike being covered in the advert. If you’re going to give us exposition, and it’s not going to turn the scene, then making us laugh is a good way to keep us engaged.
Then, after that scene, the duo walk down the street, into the factory and end up in the locker room. These opening scenes are the first, after the credits sequence, real sequence of the story – a series of scenes linked by a dramatic unity or singular purpose, in this case to introduce us to Mike and Sulley’s world. But still, the story hasn’t progressed. Yet, the characters are so great and we’re still getting used to the world that we don’t really notice, or particularly care. Still though, that was ten minutes in which they could have told story – meaningful events that emotionally engage the audience by dramatically changing the values in a character’s life – but didn’t.
After this flat – yet fun – sequence, what follows is simply superb storytelling. Again, we’re told about the scream shortage, further setup for Randall’s plan. What MI does too, really for the first time in a Pixar film, is mix suspense and mystery in the story. Not only is there great fear running through the audience due to Boo’s arrival, but we’re also curious as to exactly what Randall’s up to, and why Boo laughing causes a power surge. This duality of audience engagement is a great device to really keep them on their toes.
After the inciting incident of Boo’s arrival, the first act of the story climaxes with the first major decision by Sulley: get Boo back through her door. This basis of dramatic action then drives the telling for the second act – it’s what all the action revolves around. Through this act things start turning really sour for Sulley. We learn of Randall’s plan, Sulley sees for the first time the real effect his scaring has on the kids – and then they’re banished (a concept which, too, we’ve been unknowingly set up for). This climaxes the second act: they’re efforts to get Boo back through her door have resulted in her being captured by Waternoose – a brilliant reveal of his involvement with Randall – and them being thousands of miles away.
What’s important to note here is where the suspense/mystery knowledge states of the audience are. Generally, you want you’re final act, in this story the third act, to have a sense of acceleration and immense pace – climactic in every sense of the word. This generally means that it’s all going to be action. No revelation. And that’s where we are: every character in the story now knows everything, as does every audience member. (Of course, you can end you’re story on a revelation, e.g. Empire Strikes Back). What makes this final act even more enriched with a sense of pace is that Sulley, just as Woody did, makes his ‘crisis decision’ at the start of it. Once he decides to risk his entire world – the scare record, his friendship, the factory, his life – to get Boo back (something he wasn’t willing to do during the second act) he never makes another decision. Everyone knows everything. No more revelations. No more choices. Just action.
What follows is simply breathtaking. Taking a break from focusing on storytelling a second, the chase through the doors and rooms is just one of the most brilliantly realised uses of 3D animation yet. It just wouldn’t have worked quite as well with 2D. At the end of this third act, we get to the climactic scene, which is one of the most touching of all of Pixar’s scenes, as Sulley finally puts Boo back in her room. I don’t think I can debate that. What I do want to analyse, though, is what happens after this scene.
First though, lets look at the meaning of the film as it is. Sulley, risking everything, got Boo back. Try not to think about scaring versus laughter just yet. As ever, we must go into the deepest values of the story. I see it as this: we change our world for the better when we are willing to risk its entire future. Sulley just wasn’t willing to risk all that much during the second act. He kept Boo hidden, he himself was scared. When he made his crisis decision, he more or less said “screw it, nothing else matters now”. And because of that decision, he got Boo back, who by this time had come to mean much more than restoring his world to normal, but saving it from something worse. So by risking everything, he changed his world for the better. Then there’s a resolution scene when we see laughter is being used to generate power instead . . . then there’s one more scene.
My problem with having Sulley reunited with Boo comes down to the playing out of the consequences of our choices that I alluded to earlier. In a way, the final scene wipes away the film’s meaning – purely because the climactic, irreversible change that Sulley actively chose to carry through on, turns out not to have been worth anything. He wasn’t risking anything. The world’s still changed for the better, but it’s now meaningless because the sacrifice that climaxed our emotions wasn’t paid. People’s first reaction is – “but then it would have been a sad ending”. But the climax wasn’t sad – it was ironically transcending. Sulley had to make a sacrifice – an ultimate choice – to change his world for the better. He had to lose to ultimately gain. A mixture of both negative and positive, but more the latter. This would have been sad: Randall killing Sulley and Mike, getting Boo, and starting his scream extraction regime. That’s a sad ending.
Not only is MI’s climax not sad, it’s a fundamentally important message for children to learn. Sacrifices must be made. As you go through life, you won’t always be able to keep everything, have everything your own way. More than that, sometimes you’ll be presented with a path: the easy way, leading to the “bad world” (falling in the wrong crowd, crime etc), or the hard way, but leading to the good life. And what we’re saying to the child is that you don’t have to consign yourself to that bad world – but to break out of it you must be willing to risk it all. And going through this struggle itself is an overwhelming growing process. It’s a rites-of-passage, a maturation event. People grow as a result of making this choice. And I feel, and I’m aware many people will disagree, that tacking on the final scene stole this meaning from the audience.
I won’t go into it here, but it’s a similar problem with Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. At climax, that film is saying to us we save humanity when we sacrifice our destructive self. And people said that was a sad ending. How? How on earth is that meaning for a child sad? It’s transcending, it grounds the child in the universality of being a human. Still, they tacked on an ending.
Ultimately, we can only grow, we can only be as strong, as the forces of antagonism we overcome. And if we have to make a sacrifice along the way, then we’ll learn even more, be even stronger at the end of it. A possible defence to this argument is that at the time of making the decision, the characters really were risking it all, and so there is meaning. But what I’m saying is that the result of that decision is still being played out, and is still answered in the final scene. So when Sulley is reunited with Boo, the learning experience he’s been on actually means nothing at all. “I’ve risked it all – but it turns out it doesn’t matter! Yey!” Force feeding our youth and adolescents to grow up by only nourishing them with one half of life, namely the happy, results in a grossly underdeveloped human being.
It’s unfortunate I end this analysis on a downer, and it must seem that I don’t actually like Pixar films all that much. Well, just to reiterate, I love Pixar films. But we all know their strengths, it’s by looking at the weaknesses of a work that you really learn. In saying that, next time it’s Finding Nemo, and there doesn’t appear to be a great deal wrong with. Still though, there’s plenty to discuss…