“Monsters, Inc.” Was About More Than Just Facing Your Fears

Whether you grew up in Disney’s 90s renaissance with animated hits like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, or Pixar’s pre-Disney acquisition era of the early 2000s with blockbusters like Toy Story, you likely have one film by either of these Hollywood animation giants that, for you, stands above the rest. A movie that pulls at your heartstrings and imbues a sense of nostalgia that takes you right back to your childhood. Even if you may consider a different film from either company’s lengthy catalogue to be the superior narrative, this one resonates with you in a special way and can never be replaced. Monsters, Inc. is that movie for me. A movie that captured my imagination as a child with its outlandish concept, made me laugh and cry, while also helping me to combat a fear of the dark. It’s a movie I’ve returned to several times over the years and has always served as a place of comfort on a gloomy rainy day. However, as time passed and I crossed into my (not-so) roaring twenties, the frequency at which I would head back to Monstropolis lessened.

Writing this now as a recently turned thirty-year-old who just watched the film for the first time in almost a decade, I’m happy to share that my love for Monsters, Inc. has only grown. Not only does the narrative and writing hold up to modern sensibilities, but experiencing the story through an older lens brought forth themes that my younger self wouldn’t have considered. On the surface, overcoming one’s fears and the idea of laughter being better than screams are the themes that drive Monsters, Inc.’s story. However, watching the movie after some distance and a few more wrinkles underneath my eyes made me see some of the larger (and subtler) themes at play.

Automation & Environmentalism

What struck me most upon this rewatch was the film’s many commentaries on corporate America and capitalism. The film’s protagonist, James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), and his best friend Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), work at the largest company in Monstropolis, Monsters, Incorporated. This factory hires “scarers” to harvest the screams of human children to use as energy; the monsters enter the human world via closet doors that act as portals, and every scream is collected into a tank that is then processed into viable energy for the city. This work by these monsters, much like the work of factory workers in our real world, is considered to be incredibly high risk as human children are considered dangerous and capable of killing monsters, and human objects – even socks – are viewed as toxic.

Monsters, Inc.
Even as a kid, I knew this guy was trouble. Image: Pixar

To have a city depend on one company for all its energy, and to have that company attain said energy from an ethically murky source, brings forth questions of Monsters, Incorporated being an unregulated natural monopoly whose practices do not consider the negative impact their work has on the source they’re collecting their energy from. It’s easy to see mirrors of companies like Monsters, Incorporated in the real world; from oil and gas companies that continue to have practices like fracking regardless of the severe environmental cost, to tech giants like Tesla that mine cobalt overseas with no regard for the lives of Congolese workers. This monopoly is headed and owned by Henry J. Waternoose III, a crab-like monster who wears an opulent three-piece suit. A child of nepotism, Waternoose’s family has owned Monsters, Incorporated for three generations, however, his position is endangered as the company struggles to source enough screams to mitigate the rolling power outages across the city. This in turn causes Waternoose to scheme with the film’s primary villain, Randall Boggs, to create a machine that automatically extracts the screams from human children, effectively erasing the need for actual monster workers.

Once again, it’s easy to see the ties to real-world scenarios where companies conduct mass layoffs to increase profit margins, particularly with the introduction of new technology. This has been a by-product of capitalism and a long-running phenomenon since the Industrial Revolution. Though it’s only briefly touched upon in the film, its inclusion adds to the bigger commentary on modern-day corporate culture. A culture preserved by Waternoose, whose muted colours, harsh exterior, and overall tone and poise instill a sense of separation between him and his employees–the working class. His kindness and joviality towards Sulley at the beginning are only skin deep due to Sulley being his top worker, someone who is only important to him until a cheaper alternative–i.e automation–is found.

Fearmongering & Media Sensationalism

Midway through the movie, there’s a scene where Boo reveals herself at a restaurant, causing chaos and clamour to break out amongst the monsters. The CDA — Child Detection Agency — overrun the restaurant, and media outlets converge on the scene. We then cut to a series of news channels covering the event, with on-site interviews with monsters retelling their experiences with Boo, saying how the child shot at them with laser eyes or lifted them from the ground with her mind powers; after which we cut back to a news studio with a journalist interviewing a professor who tells audiences that it’s his professional opinion that everyone should panic. The sequence is quite hilarious and brilliantly written, yet I couldn’t help but be impressed at how relevant the scene was to our real-world media, which has historically sensationalized coverage of certain events, while also perpetuating racism and the “othering” of marginalized peoples. Couple that with the way the CDA also treats anything concerning humans, with a strict policy that effectively has no tolerance for anything related to the human world, and you can once again see how both of these separate structures cause unnecessary fearmongering amongst the public that divides the monster and human worlds.


Monsters, Inc.
If you didn’t cry during this scene, you have no heart. Image: Pixar

The relationship between Sulley and Boo is the emotional core of Monsters, Inc. A relationship that begins with Sulley fearing for what Boo, this foreign being, can do to him and his world, but blossoms into an inseparable bond. The sensitivity with which the writing and storyboarding carry every interaction between these two, taking its time to develop the two character’s discovery of one another, is truly beautiful to witness. Watching Sulley’s transformation now as an older man who’s considering fatherhood himself, the themes of parenthood are difficult to escape within the film’s writing and John Goodman’s performance. From the uncertainty and fear of having to be responsible for another being, to then doing everything in your power to protect them, to seeing the pedestal they once put you on be shattered when your follies come to light. This last point was illustrated quite harrowingly when Boo inadvertently sees Sulley give a scare presentation to Waternoose and the new monster recruits; seeing Sulley as the monster that he can also be, shatters the “Kitty” that she had thus far only seen him as, and something Sulley has to work to reconcile.

Pixar has always injected adult themes into their animated works, but Monsters, Inc. seems to be one of the few that tackles larger, socioeconomic themes that are still relevant to this day. It’s a movie that I’d just put on a whim to share with my wife who’d never seen it before, but was surprised to come out of it with a newfound appreciation. The sensitive yet poignant ways it goes about illustrating its themes is something that will stick with me, and I look forward to the next time I inevitably return to the city of Monstropolis.

Shaz Mohsin

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