Following in the footsteps of Pixar’s previous full-length computer-generated successes, Monsters, Inc. provides eye-popping imagery, laugh-out-loud humor and three-dimensional characters — and I’m not just talking about the animation.
Most significantly, though, like its predecessors, the film creates a complete world around things we think little about because we feel we have good reason to discount them — alternately, they are not living (toys), not significant (bugs) or not real (monsters). Indeed, toys and monsters are things that only children are supposed to be taken with. But the folks at Pixar have a unique track record, repeatedly using precisely these kinds of situations to bring out a crucial theme, that of cooperation triumphing over power struggle. On one hand, the suggestion is that this notion is a diamond in the rough, something not seen by many. On the other hand, the lesson is found in such varied settings that it seems impossible that we should continue to fail to see it in general. The opposing hands come together to complete the picture — wisdom is all around us, especially in the places we think are unimportant, and all it takes to gain wisdom is a willingness to look unprejudicially for it.
Audiences continue to agree in droves that they want to look at Pixar’s films. And with “reality” found in these fantastical places which secretly exist parallel to our own supposedly real world, the implication, beyond lessons, is that these toys, bugs and monsters are us, a reflection of what we are and what we can be. The lessons of a story do not have to remain only within the story.
These notions — that the Pixar characters reflect ourselves and can demonstrate the viability of cooperation — are perhaps most successfully and profoundly expressed in this latest production.
In Monsters, Inc., Monstropolis exists in a parallel dimension to our own, connected only via the bedroom closets of children. The residents of this alternate realm are what we would consider to be monsters, and their only activity in our world — scaring kids at night — merely supports this notion. What we don’t realize is that the monsters all go about what we would otherwise consider to be very normal lives. They live in apartments, go out to eat in restaurants, drive automobiles and punch in and out of their jobs.
The most important thing we don’t realize, though, is that Monstropolis’ energy needs are met by the screams of human children — and this is the only reason why companies like Monsters, Inc. send employees through closet doors to scare anybody. They are simply consuming energy resources to run their society — no malice is intended, obvious from the corporate slogan, “We Scare Because We Care.” The more effectively they scare, the more energy they obtain.
But the children of our world are gradually getting less and less scared by the monsters at night, and Monstropolis finds itself in the midst of an energy crisis. Michael “Mike” Wazowski, so proud of his car, is saddened when his buddy James P. “Sulley” Sullivan makes him walk to work to conserve resources. The push is on to be scarier and scarier.
While Sulley, supported by Mike, remains the top performer at Monsters, Inc., he has some real competition in Randall Boggs, a slithery chameleon of a monster. But behind the scenes, Randall is in cahoots with Henry J. Waternoose, the owner of Monsters, Inc., as they develop a scream extractor which would go beyond scaring children to torture them into maximum scream generation.
The entire situation is turned upside down when a child, nicknamed Boo by Sulley, finds her way into Monstropolis through her closet door. She wants nothing more than to play with Sulley and Mike, but they fear her, as they do all children, who are understood by all monsters to be toxic if touched. While awaiting the opportunity to return her to her bedroom, though, Sulley and Mike discover that Boo is not toxic at all. She is more than harmless — she is downright fun and lovable.
When Waternoose finds out that Sulley and Mike have discovered the plot to develop the scream extractor — and have discovered the harmlessness of children — he banishes them so that he can pursue his plans. How else will monsters bring themselves to scare children if they think the children are harmless and even friendly, and how else will they generate enough power for their society without the scream extractor?
In the end, though, all works out, of course, but mostly as a result of one crucial discovery. Whenever Sulley and Mike make Boo laugh, any electric equipment nearby jolts with life. The laughs of children are ten times as powerful as their screams, and humor isn’t subject to the same diminishing returns as scares are in obtaining resources. The monsters find that they can get out from under their energy crisis not by continuing to submit their subjects to ever-increasing horror but by actually having a good time with them, providing stand-up comedy instead of fear. And they themselves can pursue this new tactic without experiencing their own fear because they now know that children are non-toxic.
Of course, the film has its dramatic ups and down, its hilarious jokes, its exhilarating action sequences, and all work brilliantly to make a great piece of entertainment. That would be enough to call Monsters, Inc. a successful endeavor. But beyond all this lie some pretty profound notions about people, nature and ecology.
So often, we extract resources in ways and at rates that harm ecosystems, but we do so not out of malice toward those ecosystems or any of their inhabitants. We do it because we have appetities that we simply seek to fulfill, and these are the ways we know to fulfill them. Just as the monsters press for more screams, we, for example, drill for more oil, knowing that it is a non-renewable resource, knowing that new stocks will only last for so long. But our dependence on oil is so strong that we do not devote the time and effort to more lasting energy solutions. In so doing, each next oil deposit becomes harder to reach, and harder to find in the first place. Precisely the same systemic mechanism is in place with the monsters, for whom children are becoming more and more immune to scaring.
Our notion of nature as “red in tooth and claw” and therefore harmful and threatening to us comes not simply from the fact that there are hazards in the world (which, of course, there are) but from our need to justify the conquering of all that is not human. We convince ourselves that our consumption of nature is reasonable — that not only is it all there to be used, so we might as well use it, but that our own security will suffer if we do not do as much as possible to subdue nature before us. It’s us or them. Similarly, the monsters convince themselves that they scare because they care. They do something they certainly understand would be undesirable if done to them, but it’s only because they are looking out for themselves and their needs. What else can they do? People and monsters alike are merely earning their living, doing their jobs, providing what they feel they must provide.
But the problem in both cases lies in the very dichotomization of “us and them.” We think of nature as “other” so that we can justify doing certain things to it for our own benefit. But we fail to understand that certain kinds and levels of activity destroy the very ecosystems on which we depend, and thus our own excessive activity, in the end, comes back to haunt us, making us suffer countless losses. It is then clear that there is no other at all — that people and the rest of nature (as opposed to simply “nature,” since there is no nature separate from people) are all part of the same system, intimately bound together and interdependent. What is bad for one part is bad for the rest.
When the monsters learn that they can gain so much more by making children laugh than they can by frightening them, they learn a key lesson about systems — that the system works best for each part when it also works best for the rest. They realize that certain kinds of activity simply don’t pay off in the obvious way they “ought” to — and that certain ways of conceiving of the subjects of their activity are precisely what keep them from seeing better options. They learn that more effective activities and ideas have nothing at all to do with altruism toward an oppressed other. Monstropolis didn’t need a sweeping “human rights” movement to convince monsters to stop exploiting those poor human children. It simply needed a fuller understanding of the reality of the system.
And just as the children are not harmful to monsters, the rest of nature is not harmful to people. Indeed, people can’t live without it. Animal rights movements and pleas for conservation of resources and endangered species are all useful as far as they go, shedding some much-needed light on the importance of keeping ecosystems working lest we fail once they do. But fundamental change can’t come from such movements. It will come, instead, from people who see themselves for what they really are — integral parts of a larger system whose other parts benefit us, and whose other parts can benefit from us. Animal rights and convservation efforts continue to play into the very us-and-them dichotomy that has gotten us in trouble in the first place. Real progress will only come from the transcendence of that false dichotomy, the realization that the other is not really “other” and therefore can’t be our enemy at all.
Synergy is the increase in vibrancy yielded by parts working together as a whole compared to what they’d achieve on their own. It is something that happens automatically in dynamic systems — the parts may work together in service of the whole, yet what goes around comes around, and the parts gain benefits that would have been impossible outside the system. This is one of the most profound lessons we can learn — and it is learned by the monsters in Monsters, Inc. The green-eyed monster of envy, wrapped up as it is with the enmity inherent in any us-or-them dichotomy, gives way to the “green,” ecologically minded monsters of Monstropolis who lead better lives once they learn to cooperate with the energy sources on which they depend instead of simply exploiting them in the way handed down to them.
The more general lesson noted earlier is also an ecological one, and it is truly present here as it was in A Bug’s Life and the Toy Story movies. The lesson is this: that life, significance and wisdom can be found in the least likely places — including formulaic Hollywood animated films.