Monsters Are People, Too

Peeking into that dark, scary closet is just what the Docter ordered.

November 04, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Picture this:

Billy Crystal as the leprechaunish Cyclops, Mike, in Monsters, Inc. pitches the woo to a taller, serpentine Cyclops named Celia (Jennifer Tilly), who boasts a Medusa's head of snake-hair.

Suddenly he notices a pile of stone statues.

As the snakes on Celia's head snap, he asks her what the statues are.

Without missing a beat or thinking it will make him nervous, Celia answers, "My old boyfriends."

It's a hilarious throwaway. But you'll have to picture it in your imagination, because you'll never see it on the screen.

As Pete Docter, the movie's director, explained over the phone, he and his fellow comic artists at Pixar (the Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life) cut loose any joke or bit of business if it threatened to alter the film's priorities. And the prime adult relationship in this movie was not Mike to Celia but Mike to the bearlike "scarer champ" Sulley, played by the ineffable John Goodman.

Over the phone from Pixar's Emeryville headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, Docter says that performers' schedules are so full -- and technical schedules so complicated -- that a cartoon director normally couldn't work with two performers at once even if he wanted to. But as Sulley and Mike, two guys who've known each other since before monster kindergarten, Goodman and Crystal needed to click.

So Docter, in a Pixar first, brought them into the recording studio at the same time -- "and the energy went through the roof. They started with our script, then John and Billy would go with their different ways, resulting not only in great lines, but also little vocalizations, like Crystal's Mike complaining and Goodman's Sulley responding, 'Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.' "

Their show-biz fizz gives Monsters, Inc. a wholly unexpected energy. Docter contends, "The cliche treatment of the subject would be: A sad kid has a problem at home and goes to the monster world or gets saved by a monster and then goes back to his real life -- the Wizard of Oz sort of thing." Instead, Docter and company decided to follow the monster and see what life was like for him.

Life with monsters

A story man and supervising animator on Toy Story, Docter says working on that first Pixar feature "allowed me to tap into my childhood -- the feeling I knew I had that my toys could come to life. I tried to think of what else I knew as a child -- and one thing I knew for sure was that there were monsters in my closet. But why were the monsters in my closet? So much of the film is based on the logic of following that question to the end.

"Why would monsters want to scare children? We figure they'd scare kids for a living. So their peak earning period was probably after the Second World War baby boom. It was a more innocent time, kids were more easily scared, and for monsters there were major profits. In fact, in the design of the movie, you can see that Monsters Inc. built a huge new factory -- it's in the style of massive '50s architecture, with formed concrete and big struts, and it looks a little dated."

Surrounding that factory is the city of Monstropolis, which Docter says "has been around as long as there have been frightened humans. If it just looked plastic and clean, it would not have been believable. And this is not the best of times for Monstropolis. After Vietnam and Watergate and video games, kids are jaded and not so easily scared; you've got an energy crisis. We wanted to have layers of a building stack on top of each other, almost like the layers of a cake, and also give the sense of a pretty diverse city. We looked at industry towns -- a steel town like Pittsburgh, for instance -- and combined their ambience with a little more of a European or at least New York flavor."

They even steered composer Randy Newman toward using late-'40s, early-'50s jazz combos to add to the streetwise atmosphere.

"At first, we were thinking that monsters could build anything," recalls Docter. "We thought that they could erect skyscrapers from Jell-O. But at a certain point we realized we should reimagine our own world as if monsters lived there, with floors made of concrete to hold the weight of two-ton creatures, and doors of really strong material with multiple knobs at varying heights so monsters of all shapes and sizes can use them."

Building relationships

What moviegoers may enjoy most about the film -- the teamwork of Goodman and Crystal -- came about as a second thought, when it was decided that Sulley (Goodman) was spending too much time alone. To Docter, the heart of the film has always been the relationship of Sulley and the 2-year-old girl, Boo. And he knew the dangers of having a little-kid heroine: "You can go cutesy and make people want to retch; so you want to balance the cuteness of the kid, which is real, with the other reality of how a kid reacts -- when she cries she turns red and snot goes down her nose. You want to show the whole picture of kids."

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