Disney intends to continue to release 3-D versions of its biggest animated hits, including a few of Pixar’s. Last year’s “The Lion King 3D” kicked things off. The downside of this development involves some legitimate grousing about the general spottiness of 3-D conversions and how no one truly yearns to see Mufasa raising up Simba right on the bridge of your nose. But the re-released movie was a hit. Conversions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Finding Nemo” followed; brace yourselves for “The Little Mermaid,” coming next September.
These movies were all popular before 3-D became a permanent fixture of certain types of moviegoing. It’s easy and perhaps healthy to fret about the profit motive and Disney’s genius for making it impossible for a parent to avoid spending money on the same movie simply by changing the movie’s format.
The upside, of course, is that, no matter the dimensions, movies are always new to someone, and now with “Monsters, Inc.” having turned 3-D that someone is me. The reformatted version opens Wednesday, but having missed its 2-D incarnation in 2001, I decided to right that wrong. When the movie came out, I was underemployed. I was also in my mid-20s and the sort of person who might have taken the movie and the act of moviegoing a tad too seriously. Eleven years ago Pixar wasn’t cool to me. It made children’s movies about insects and toys and, even though Buzz Lightyear had a moment in “Toy Story 2” that had grabbed my soul, I wasn’t prepared to buy a ticket to “Monsters, Inc.” Instead, on opening weekend, I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s black-and-white film noir, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” only partially aware that it was Pixar for the smug and self-serious.
“Monsters, Inc.” was the fourth Pixar film, and it has a perverse brilliance that “A Bug’s Life” and two “Toy Story” movies didn’t. It’s set in a world populated by slithering, oozing, crawly, lumbering critters that live more or less as we do. They fear humans the way we fear mice. But their primary power source is screaming children. Most of the film takes place in and around a plant elaborately devoted to sneaking monsters into kids’ bedrooms, scaring the life out of them, and capturing their shrieks in canisters, thus powering the city. There is, of course, an energy crisis: Kids are tougher now and harder to scare. One evening a little girl sneaks out of her bed and creates a nearly apocalyptic crisis zone full of terrified beasts. She also melts the heart of the city’s top scarer, who makes it his mission to safely return her to her room.
The plant is gradually revealed to be a surrealist marvel more divine than anything Pixar has come up with since. The monsters enter bedrooms through doors that, when mounted on contraptions, become portals. At some point, the film turns up to the rafters and reveals the doors arranged like shirts at an infinite dry-cleaner. It’s a nightmare factory whose mechanical functioning is the stuff of some carpenters’ dreams.
What the filmmakers — Pete Docter directed; Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson wrote the screenplay — achieve is an inside-out children’s movie. I suppose that’s what all Pixar films are, but this one takes a nightmare scenario (the monster in the closet) and industrializes it in a way that destabilizes the nightmare. I don’t know what a de-quilled porcupine is, but this movie is close to that. It’s worth remembering that the movie was released less than two months after 9/11. The country was in a state of high alert. Danger could have been anywhere, and a sense of unease tended to haunt your subway rides and cross-country flights. “Monsters, Inc.” was cheekily about the business of scaring people. But the inside-out part — plucking the quills from terror — must have been a kind of comfort.
Humanizing monsters is a different risk than doing the same to toys or bugs or, later in “Finding Nemo,” fish. A monster is a loaded concept, and the ones in “Monsters Inc.” are made to look grosser and more intimidating than scary. The two protagonists are physical opposites: a giant bear-like critter, with fur the color of a Koosh ball and whose best pal is just a pair of short green legs and arms with an enormous eyeball for a head. The filmmakers make them a kind of blue-collar tandem named Sulley and Mike. John Goodman and Billy Crystal do the voices, and Crystal especially is going for vaudeville in his nasal approach to the gags. Of course, you’re meant to like them. The film’s villain is a cheating lizard (Steve Buscemi), who is scheming to surpass Sulley as the most successful scarer in town.
A friend who knew I’d be seeing “Monsters, Inc.” for the first time asked me to imagine that I was watching it with the great classical Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch on my sofa. Lubitsch is famous for his finesse. He could take any subject, heavy or dirty, and transform its properties until the comedy is all you notice. “Monsters, Inc.” might be the most Lubitsch-like of all the Pixar films. It’s deceptively simple and light beyond belief, but there’s magic in that simplicity and lightness. There’s vast, hilarious wit, too.
You can feel in this movie Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” It’s also the germ of such future Pixar monuments as “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3.” With “Monsters, Inc.,” the ambition and big ideas don’t announce themselves as they do in those more acclaimed movies. By Pixar’s current Olympic standards, it seems like a modest achievement. But by the standards of nearly any comedy or cartoon, shown in any format, it’s ingenious.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.