I had not seen Monsters Inc since it came out in 2001(?!) and I was only 10 (as my partner helpfully reminded me). I don’t remember much about watching it, just that I know I did watch it at some point and enjoyed it. I think was a young kid I was so enamored with the concept that the fact that the execution is maybe middle of the road didn’t bother me so much.
I was, after all, 10.
Now, nearly 20 years later I’m looking back at Monsters Inc in a very different world. Does this Pixar film do much of anything in the way of critiquing work? Are there any serious takeaways we can get from this movie? I decided to do the horrible task of re-watching this Pixar classic and discovered that, yeah, there’s some work-critical ideas here. The movie doesn’t take them nearly as far as they should, but then I didn’t expect them to.
If you’re young or otherwise never saw Monsters Inc, here’s the general idea: Monsters exist (woah) and they power their world through the screams of children. They hide in your closet (duh) and then come out, scare you and then disappear into their own world. It’s interesting that this movie had to balance between scary and not too scary since it’s a Pixar film. I only found one monster in the movie scary looking or intimidating but I’m also 28 at this point.
The conceit of the film is that the monsters aren’t able to scare kids as well anymore. Kids just don’t scare as easy (no reason is given for why, it’s just treated as a basic fact) and it’s up to Sully and Mike (our protagonists) to help keep the factory running. Eventually shenanigans ensue and an evil plot is revealed that affects everyone within Monsters Inc and outside of it.
I can’t say this film got me too emotional (except at the very end) or that I felt invested in the plot. I cared more about the setting and the concept than the individual plot beats. As for work-critical themes there’s definitely some poking fun at bureaucracy, there’s a whole lot of paperwork in this film, which is partly how the movie indirectly gets most of its plot if you think about it.
There’s also the themes of bad bosses, overly competitive workplaces causing strife inside and outside the organization. Monsters Inc notably has a “scareboard” that all of the monsters compete on to see who is producing the most amount of screams from the most amount of children. Sully is currently ahead of everyone else but as anyone who has played Kingdom Hearts 3 will know, Sully has some competition and it’s not of the friendly variety.
One thing about the movie that isn’t heavily explicit but implied is that the workers have to produce screams or else. Or else what? Well, it doesn’t seem like anyone had money (at least that I remember) so it’s tied more to their existence itself. If they run out of screams then the energy crisis (definitely not timely at all!) will only get worse. But the overall message of the movie isn’t “this is cruel and unfair” just that getting the energy through screams is unfair.
Therefore it’s not the foundation that is suspect but rather the process that’s supported by the foundation, a fairly liberal read on systemic oppression, but there it is.
And while the movie touts an alternative paradigm for these screams it never tries to find an alternative paradigm to the work itself. Nor does it take from its obvious plot convenience surrounding the proposed alternative to shorten how often people need to work. We see that things are a lot easier by the end of the film but we don’t get much in the way of knowing concretely if this has made everyone get more leisure time or not.
At the beginning of the film Sully is consumed with his job. All he does is go to bed after work so he can get up early, exercise for his scares in the day and make his boss happy. Mike tells him when he’s about to go on a date that there’s more to life than scaring. But for Sully this is akin to sacrilege, how can all of his efforts be worth less than going out to restaurants?
The movie doesn’t focus too heavily on Sully’s workaholic nature but it’s at least explicitly stated from Sully’s own best friend that he cares too much about work. Therefore the movie at least acknowledges explicitly that there’s a limit to how much you should be doing. Eventually you need to get outside, take a break and enjoy yourself. But when that eventually reaches its breaking point is left up to question and never furthered as a theme.
In addition, once a possibility for more “ethically sourced” (as I’ll call it) energy is revealed and the evil plot is foiled by our heroes, Sully and Mike seem to find great purpose in their work again. The answer seems to be: Just build your work on more ethically sourced actions and that will resolve any systemic problems you might have with your job!
But of course, that’s not how it works in the real world. We have corporations who talk about their “ethically sourced” materials all of the time but getting that still requires intensive labor, often from immigrants or desperate people who are paid much less than they’re worth.
Ultimately the bad guys aren’t just foiled by Mike and Sully but also another organization that proves it can work against the interests of the corporation. I’m not sure what this is supposed to prove, but generally regulatory agencies are notoriously bad at doing their job when it comes to big corporations. Often because those same regulatory boards are staffed with CEOs from the same corporation or bought off by them, either way.
I know some of this analysis of Monsters Inc may seem ridiculous to some. “It’s a kids movie!” But kids pick up on themes too and movies that are made for kids often appeal (or attempt to appeal) to adults as well. There are real messages Pixar was trying to communicate with Monsters Inc, though I don’t think they were particularly impressive when it came to the topic of work.
Great movie though!
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