Piggybacking on the November 10 release of the latest Pixar juggernaught, UP (2009), comes the long-awaited Blu-Ray of the studio’s 4th animated feature, Monsters, Inc. (2001), helmed by UP’s Pete Docter. Eight years ago, the film represented a bit of a turning point for us in relation to animated films; though we thoroughly enjoyed the first two TOY STORY films and A BUG’S LIFE, none really grabbed us the way MONSTER, INC. did. The film tapped a rich vein with this viewer, whose childhood was steeped in both the hope and fear that the world was full of monsters and that some of them might just be in our closet at this very minute (though others must share this semi-macabre world view, as the film handily out-grossed all previous Pixar films).
The power supply for the sprawling city of Monstropolis is completely dependent upon the employees of its utility company, Monsters, Inc. Through a porthole system that connects with the bedroom closet doors of children all over the human world, its employees – a select group of ‘scarers’ – appear to small children and coax out their screams, which the utility converts to raw power. One day, the company’s top scarer, Sulley (John Goodman) spots an unattended door on the scare floor while the vile Randall (Steve Buscemi) sneaks about after hours. Sulley checks the door, unwittingly allowing a human child to enter into the company, a child who is utterly unafraid of the Sulley and the rest of the Monster world. Since every monster knows that human children are highly toxic, any monster known to come in contact with one is immediately put into isolation by agents of the CDA (Child Detection Agency). Consequently, Sulley enlists the aid of best friend Mike (Billy Crystal) to hide the little girl (known only as ‘Boo’) until he can return her to the other side of the door. But Randall has other plans for Boo, plans that will guarantee him the title of ‘Top Scarer’ and change Monsters, Inc. forever.
You couldn’t tell from the box art for the new Blu-Ray set, the real secret to this film’s success is the sole non-monster in the cast. From almost the first moment she appears onscreen, ‘Boo’ became one of the most effortlessly charming Disney creations in recent memory. Design-wise, the cute factor is obviously super-accentuated, but it’s the voice casting that makes her so winning. Pixar knew not to bother with a teenager making baby talk, and instead went with a child that closely matched Boo’s actual age (Mary Gibbs, who provided the voice, was born in 1996 and could only have been about 3 years old when the tracks were recorded). And instead of attempting to get her to read from a script, the engineers simply followed her around with a microphone and recorded her natural chatter, giving all Boo’s actions an air of childhood verisimilitude that almost everyone will instantly recognize.
There’s a terrific sequence early in the film with Sulley and Mike trying to hide Boo from the CDA from inside Sulley’s apartment; she sings to herself while drawing in coloring books and skips in circles until she makes herself dizzy while Mike and Sulley cower in fear, using a pair of tongs held at arm’s length to move her around the apartment. Besides being drop-dead funny, the scene brilliantly deflates any fears of monsters from young children in the audience (an audience I’m sure that Disney was afraid Pixar would lose in telling a story centered on monsters in closets).
The real threat in the film comes from Randall, a chameleon-like creature that wants to tie young children down to a frightening-looking machine and forcibly extract their screams – sort-of like the Monsters, Inc take on dynamite fishing. Randall had been assigned as Boo’s official monster, and the moment when she tries to tell Sulley not to leave her alone in the bedroom by drawing a picture of Randall is almost unbearably sweet, funny, and sad all at once.
The film’s finale, featuring a break-neck chase through the M.C. Escher-inspired doorway conveyer facility, is as fine an action scene as we’ve ever seen in animated film, never feeling wedged-in merely to provide a final action beat (like the unnecessarily frightening studio fire sequence that capped BOLT). The film concludes, however, on one of the purest and flat-out beautiful notes we’ve ever seen, and we find our eyes welling up at the thought of it. After 10 hugely successful films, MONSTERS, INC. is still our favorite Pixar title.
MONSTERS, INC. is the 6th Pixar film to be released on Blu-Ray, and from the disc we were sent, the wait has been worth it. Following the example of UP, the film comes in a four-disc set, including the feature and the extras from the previous DVD special edition housed on 2 BD discs, a third standard-def DVD of the film, and a fourth disc housing the digital copy.
The feature represents a direct digital download from Pixar’s own servers and the image is never anything short of breathtaking. All Pixar films have looked great on standard-def DVD, but the bump up to 1080p resolution allows for close examining of picture detail that we ever even knew was there; one could, for instance, become almost hypnotized staring at the movement of Sulley’s purple fur (and as a child reared on a dog-eared edition of “Where the Wild Things Are,” we loved that the design of Sulley is clearly inspired by Maurice Sendak’s artwork).
The main feature is accompanied by a commentary track featuring co-directors Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich, writer Andrew Stanton, and producer John Lasseter. The Pixar team is justly famous for their ease on these tracks and this is no exception – an informal yet informative listen.
New to the set is a Filmmakers’ Round Table (a roughly 20-minute chat with several key members of the creative team as they look back on the film) and Ride and Go Seek: Building Monstropolis in Japan (a peek at the new ride at the Tokyo Disneyland – it may smell a bit too promotional, but it worked on us), and another interactive trivia game that we’ll never play, Roz’s 100 Door Challenge.
Everything else that appeared on the original 2002 DVD set appears to be here as well, including the wonderful For the Birds, which played theatrically with the film, and Mike’s New Car, the short that was added to the original DVD set. There are also literally dozens of production featurettes, with few running more than 5 minutes in length, and it would be nice to be able to bond these together in a single long-form documentary (though kids are more likely to be entertained in shorter bursts, we suppose). We’ve said before that reviewing Pixar discs is feeling increasingly trite; for fans of matchless digital animation and model storytelling, there’s simply no one else in their class.
Having launched his career with the weird and intriguing MTV short subject “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions” (the first of what was supposd to be several episodes that, never, alas materialized), Henry Selick followed up by directing one of the most charming fantasy entertainments ever created for the screen, Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993). Selick not only evinced a formidable technical expertise, employing stop-motion and other effects to create images at once bizarre and beautiful; he also showed a seemingly sure hand for employing that expertise in the service of the greater good: creating a film that worked as a whole, not just a series of set pieces. He seemed to be a major new talent in the field of cinefantastique.
Unfortunately, Selick’s next directorial outing was a severe disappointment: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996) displayed the same impressive technical accomplishment, but the movie was an unengaging technical tour-de-force that prompted CFQ’s Dan Persons to note that looks “can only go so far” while criticizing the “formless story” and “flat characterizations.” 2001’s MONKEYBONE continued Selick’s downward career trajectory; not merely a disappointment, the film is a complete disaster that bombed with both audiences ($7.6-million worldwide gross on a $75-million budget) and with critics (20% approval at Rotten Tomatoes).
The terrible ticket sales prompted a typical round of the Blame Game, with filmmakers anonymously pointing fingers at 20th Century Fox for not supporting the film’s release, but even a casual glance at MONKEYBONE reveals serious flaws that rendered potential success virtually impossible. In a nutshell, Selick and company attempt to delve into darker, more adult territory, but they operate with all the sophistication of an immature kiddie flick, resulting in a film that appeals to neither parents nor their children.
The tone is set immediately in an animated prologue that depicts grade school student Stu Miley becoming sexually aroused by his overweight teacher’s flabby arms. Obviously intended as a comical scene about sex, the scene is neither funny nor sexy, prompting neither laughter nor arousal but only disgust. As a plot point, the sequence serves its function (Stu’s arousal led to the creation of a cartoon character named Monkeybone, representing his id), but the entertainment value is virtually zero.
The remainder of the film operates on the same level, serving up a series of scenes that are dull or uninteresting when they are not simply mildly repugnant. Stu (Brendan Fraser) is a successful cartoonist who winds up in a coma just as his Monkeybone character is being launched in a new animated series. His soul ends up in Dark Town, which is populated by a variety of bizarre characters, including Monkeybone, who manages to catch a ride back to the real world, where he inhabits Stu’s body, putting the moves on Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). Stu eventually manages to get back to Earth, occupying the body of a dead gymnast (Chris Kattan) and sending Monkeybone back to Dark Town.
All of these scenes roll on without any rhythm and with no consideration for whether or not they are working. No one involved with the film seems to have considered the fact that there is nothing funy about seeing Monkeybone possess Stu’s body and attempt to seduce Stu’s fiancee; the very concept is repulsive. That Fraser plays the scene by acting like a monkey (which Monkeybone himself seldom if ever does) only makes it worse. The gymnast sequences may have been funny out of context, but this late in the film they come across as desperate attempts to enliven a moribund film.
There is also an unnecessary plot complication: Julie is a sleep expert, whose experiments will create nightmares; Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) wants the formula to revitzlied Dark Town, so he double-crosses Stu, helping Monkeybone escape from Dark Town in his place. This takes up screen time but adds nothing vital to the story. Monkeybone is the kind of character who should act alone, on impulse, not as part of some conspiracy.
The film throws so much at the audience that, inevitably, a few entertaining moments do stick, but they are few and far between. Miss Kitty (Rose McGowan) registers mostly as a teen-age boy’s fantasy – female sex appeal outfitted with a few feline accoutrement’s – but his sudden transition into feral ferocity (killing a guard to help Stu escape from Dark Town) is the one moment when the film’s attempt to twist its colorful imagery into something dark and twisted actually works.
Monkeybone may have had the potential to be a memorably off-the-wall character in the manner of other unleashed maniacs (think of THE MASK or Buddy Love in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), but he is only obnoxious. Characters of this type usually intrigue because we are invited to enjoy their antics even as we disapprove of them, but nothing about Monkeybone is enjoyable. The rest of the characters are little better. Although we sympathize with Stu’s situation, he does not register much as a personality, and Bridget Fonda’s fressh-faced appeal is the only good thing about Julie.
The sets and special effects do provide some interesting sights, but they can be enjoyed far more easily in the trailer. Having created the potentially fascinating world of Dark Town on screen, Selick and screenwriter Sam Hamm simply have not managed to tell an interesting story in that setting. The problem is not that their approach was too adult for audiences expecting a family-friendly fantasy; it is that their “adult” approach displays a sad lack of maturity.
The special edition DVD presents the film with solid technical credentials, including a good image transfer and a 5.1 mix in both DTS and Dolby Digital. Extras include a photo gallery, a trailer, TV spots, 7 animation studies, 11 deleted scenes, and an audio commentary.
The “animation studies” show early rough versions of the effects sequences, accompanied by optional commentary from Selick, providing some insight into how these scenes are put together.
Ten of the eleven deleted scenes feature optional commentary by Selick. Mostly these are extended scenes rather than totally new material. In fact, considering the rumors that circulated about last-minute re-editing after disastrous preview screenings, it is surprising how relatively insignificant the additional footage is – no more than one would expect from the usual trimming for time. They offer no indication that the film underwent major surgery and only serve to remind us that, as poorly paced as the movie is, it could have been even worse.
Henry Selick’s audio commentary is the most interesting bonus feature. He provides plenty of information about how the special effects were achieved, along with behind-the-scenes stories about working on the film. Unfortunately, Selick seldom comes to grips with what is wrong with MONKEYBONE. He explains away the bad reception by suggesting the film was too sophisticated and adult (unlike the pure simplicity of Tim Burton’s work). The one notable exception comes when he admits to some reservations about the sub-plot involving Julie’s sleep experiments. Even with this caveat, Selick’s commentary is informative and entertaining enough to make it worth your while to sit through MONKEYBONE again, whether or not you liked it the first time.
MONKEYBONE (2001). Directed by Henry Selick. Screenplay by Sam Hamm, based on the graphic novel Dark Townby Kaja Blackley. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro, Chris Kattan, Giancarlo Esposito, Rose McGowan, Dave Foley, Megan Mullally, Lisa Zane, Whoopi Goldberg.
This is a modern horror film with an old-fashioned touch, relying on suspense and the suggestion of the supernatural to generate a disturbing sense of the Uncanny. In the manner of classic haunted house movies like THE INNOCENTS (1960) and THE HAUNTING (1963), THE OTHERS uses a deliberately steady pace to increase tension, gradually drawing viewers into its mystery until they are so engaged that they completely susceptible to the effectively executed scare tactics. Although the actual shocks are few and far between, the film maintains interest with its intelligent storytelling, and the rich atmosphere sustain the mood of supernatural dread throughout, so that when the scares do come, they are worth the wait—even simple things like a slamming door are guaranteed to send you hurtling out of your seat with a scream. Of course, the pacing is a gambit, and it does not always pay off; repeat viewings may have you wishing that the editing were not quite so slow and stately. The scare scenes remain effective, but you may find yourself growing impatient while awaiting their arrival.
The story is set in a mansion on a small British island, immediately after World War II. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is seeking replacements for three servants who mysteriously disappeared, without explanation. Fortunately, three volunteers show up, led by Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), even though (it later turns out) the advertisement Grace mailed to the local newspaper was never picked up by the postman. Our concern about who these servants really are (and what they’re up to) keeps us off-balance while we try to focus on the real story: Grace’s house seems to be haunted; at least, that’s what her daughter Anne (Alakina Mann) insists Grace refuses to believe in ghosts, and so—at least at first—does her son Nicholas (James Bentley). But soon Nicholas is hearing voices in the night and feeling the touch of a hand. Is there really a ghost, or is his older sister playing a horrible prank on him? Soon Grace herself is having doubts, when she hears unaccountable noises in the attic, and finds a door swung closed in her face by an unseen force.
Mrs. Mills lends a sympathetic ear to Grace’s growing fear. But is she really sincere, or merely plotting in some way to drive Grace and her family from the house? Grace’s doubts melt away after she departs for the village, searching for the local priest to bless the house. Lost in the fog, she never makes it to town; instead, she encounters her husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston), who had been presumed dead in the war. Returning with him, she reverts to her previous skepticism, refusing to listen to her daughter’s tales of “The Others” who inhabit the house. But when Charles departs as mysteriously as he arrived, the evidence of another presence in the house grows too strong to ignore. Grace blames the servants for perpetrating some kind of hoax, but locking them out only traps her inside with the intruders, forcing a confrontation that finally reveals the mystery behind the haunting.
Writer-director Alejandro Amenabar (who also composed the score) orchestrates all these plot elements wonderfully. He knows how to build up to his shocks slowly and carefully, teasing the audience along, making them wait for the big moments without getting bored. Although the limited cast and locations (a half dozen people in one house and the surrounding grounds) almost suggest a stage play, the film is never static. His camera pulls us in, hints at what lies unseen around the corner, gives us glimpses of horrors sometimes real and sometimes imagined. With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, Amenabar achieves a level of atmosphere equivalent to the best black-and-white pictures of this kind. Filmed mostly in darkened interiors (because Grace’s children are allergic to sunlight), THE OTHERS layers on the shadows and fog (thanks to help from the special effects team, who turned the sunny location into a mist-bound limbo) without ever overdoing the effect. In short, this is a film that gives you what you expect from the best examples of the genre, without ever seeming formulaic or predictable.
THE OTHERS is a film that succeeds because it is built upon simple, basic virtues: use story, characterization, and performance to make the audience care about what’s happening on screen; then when the horror element emerges, viewers will scream in fear instead of laughing in derision.
Because of this approach, one comes away from the film not only impressed with the technical competence that crafted the thrills. One also has a vivid appreciation of the film’s performances, which are as strong as in any mainstream, dramatic film. In particular, Nicole Kidman handles herself quite impressively in the lead role: in the horror sequences, she conveys an impressive array of variations on the stock expression of wide-eyed fear, yet somehow she never descends into camp; in the everyday scenes, she brings a level of neurosis to the character that is always convincing. Her character is a god-fearing woman, and she obviously loves her children, but you know that something was wrong even before the haunting started, something that is not fully explained until the very end, but her performance makes the revelation understandable and believable when it comes (just as Anthony Perkins slyly tipped his hand in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO).
Also deserving mention is Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills, who gives a carefully measured performance that elicits sympathy, even while sowing doubts in our minds about her true intentions.
With this level of performance at his command, Amenabar had the luxury of crafting a film that eschewed the excess of most contemporary horror films. Subtlety (often a misused synonym for unimaginative technique) in this case does what it is supposed to do, resulting in a film that lives up to (even if it does not quite exceed) the classic films that it aspires to emulate.
It is a little too soon for THE OTHERS to have developed the patina of age that one normally associates with a “classic.” The film’s lasting impact, if any, is an open question (although it is spoofed in SCARY MOVIE 3—which suggests the audience is expected to recognize the joke—the film has not entered the public consciousness in the manner of THE SIXTH SENSE). Nevertheless, THE OTHERS’ period setting bestowed an almost “classic” feel on the film from its debut, and the passage of even a couple years contribute to a growing appreciation of the film’s virtues, which embody the best of the Victorian ghost story tradition.
M.R. James, one of the great writers in this field, once outlined the method he used in his tales: set the story up slowly; show the characters going about their daily lives; then introduce the supernatural element gradually; at first, let it be heard rather than seen, then glimpsed fleetingly, before finally making its full appearance on stage. This technique works marvelously in short stories such as those that James wrote, but it can be dangerous when applied to a novel or a full-length movie. By keeping the main element of interest, the ghost, off-screen for so long, one risks boring the audience. This may be even more true in this day and age, when viewers expect a full-frontal assault of CGI special effects starting from frame one. Yet somehow, Amenabar managed to fashion just such an old-fashioned ghost story for the screen.
At times, his film resembles a classic Victorian ghost story written by another author named James: Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” The horror of the situation is amplified to terrifying degrees by focusing on the presence of the two children in the house; the performances by the youngsters are always effective, and Bentley is especially good at portraying a level of fear that is usually heart-breaking.
But THE OTHERS is no carbon copy. “Turn of the Screw” rested on two questions: (1) Were the children innocent victims or accomplices of the ghosts? And (2) were there really any ghosts at all, or were they merely imagined by the novelette’s narrator? For the sake of mystery and suspense, Amenabar’s script doesn’t give us all the answers right away, but it soon becomes apparent that there is indeed some kind of supernatural presence in the house, and the children are terrified of it, not in league with it.
[SPOILER ALERT] Still, even with these elements clarified, the story strives to pull off a surprise ending, revealing that not only the suspicious servants but also Grace and her children are the ghosts haunting the house. Viewers who paid close attention to all the clues were able to figure it out, but this is hardly a criticism. Rather, it characteristic of the best kind of plot twist: one that makes sense out of the mysterious events that preceded: Why did the mail stop coming to the house? Why does the pastor no longer visit? Why does Grace say that she feels absolutely cut off from the rest of the world? Why does a surrounding fog make the house seem as if it’s lost in limbo? In short, Amenabar’s script plays fair with its audience, and the resolution is a satisfying, even if you do have a suspicious notion of where the ending is headed.* [END OF SPOILER ALERT]
THE OTHERS is available on DVD as part of Dimension’s “Collector’s Series,” but the two-disc set will hardly satisfy collectors. The presentation of the film is excellent in terms of picture and sound quality, but there is no director’s audio commentary (perhaps because English is not his first language), and the minimal extras hardly seem sufficient to justify the second disc. The longest of these, a so-called “documentary” look behind the scenes, is little more than a promotional puff-piece that falls far short of providing the sort of critical analysis and historical perspective the film deserves—and which would go a long way toward explaining how such a long-shot movie managed to become a front-runner in the box office race. Such a finely craft film deserved a more thorough presentation on DVD.
THE OTHERS (2001). Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakna Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy, Renee Asherson.
FOOTNOTE [with spoilers]:
- Coming only two years after THE SIXTH SENSE, the ending of THE OTHERS is sometimes perceived as a rip-off of that film. Actually, the surprise twist is more reminiscent of the obscure 1973 film VOICES, which stars David Hemmings and Gayle Hunnicutt as a married couple who have moved into an old house that seems to be haunted; eventually, realize they died in a car crash on the way, and now they are among the ghost haunting the place. William Peter Blatty used a similar plot twist at the end of his short novel Elsewhere, which was published as part of the horror anthology 999, in the appropriate year of 1999.