Monsters, Inc.: Work isn't all there is to life

Pixar's fourth feature film is full of ferocious, furry monsters meant to scare, but it's actually a movie full of heart.

Monsters, Inc.: Work isn't all there is to life

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.


Monsters, Inc. is the epitome of Pixar’s well-earned reputation for films that both parents and kids can deeply enjoy. Emphasis on “parents” as opposed to “adults,” because, for perhaps the first time, a Pixar film clearly evokes the father-child dynamic through Sulley and Boo. It’s natural to see the hulking, ostensibly terrifying blue monster as a father figure to the small human child because he bends over backwards to protect her from harm after he realizes she’s not, in fact, a toxic terror. That level of love and devotion is in keeping with what we’ve seen so far in Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2. It would be easy to see the father-daughter relationship of it all as the main point, but it’s actually secondary to the film’s commentary on jobs and our relationship to them.

It’s right there in the title; the film is about a company and its employees. It ends up being a corrupt place, even by the low-bar put in place by the nature of monsters’ work. Somehow, it makes perfect sense to human viewers that their job is to creep into children’s rooms to scare them into screaming. We don’t think it cruel or reprehensible as they do this, likely helped along by the world-building that tells us that screams are what powers the city’s electrical grid. The scarers, like Sulley, are some strange mix of celebrity and blue-collar utilities workers. There’s a level of acceptance from the viewers that’s partly due to the monsters’ cuteness, instead of ferocity, to our eyes and a mindset that screams, “Well, what did you really expect? They’re monsters.” And, of course, we can’t forget how terrified monsters are of human kids, which in many ways de-fangs them of their power to scare those of us watching at home.

Randall, Sulley’s main scaring rival, and Mr. Waternoose, the CEO of the company, somehow make the endeavor of powering the city by screams seem gross and ominous once their plan to extract screams by a torturous machine is revealed.

That transformation in the viewer’s mind is helped along by Sulley’s character arc. The film begins with a Rocky-esque training montage for Sulley as he improves his scare skills. His faithful cyclops of a sidekick, Mike, puts him through his paces, and Sulley relishes the workout just as much as he relishes the fame and adoration that comes from being very good at his job.

It becomes clear early on that Sulley has little else in his life besides work. As Mike prepares for a date with his snake-haired sweetheart, Celia, he asks about Sulley’s plans in the company locker room after a full day of scaring.

Mike: What’s on your agenda?

Sulley: I’m gonna head home and work out some more.

Mike: Again? You know, there’s more to life than scaring.

Sulley is a classic workaholic. He’s dedicated to his job, and he’s rightly recognized as the company’s most valuable asset. In terms of a professional athlete, he’s the perennial all-star with a maxed-out contract. The CEO leans on him heavily by wanting him to train newbies. He never fails to deliver to everyone’s expectations.

The pivotal moment of the movie comes about ¾ of the way into it, when Sulley and Mike have discovered Randall’s diabolical plan (but don’t yet know of Mr. Waternoose’s involvement), and they seek out Mr. Waternoose to expose Randall in hopes of no longer having to run from him. They find him still trying to explain to the newbies why they’re not very good at scaring, and when Sulley arrives, Mr. Waternoose seizes the opportunity to have Sulley show them how it’s done. In a state of exasperation and without thinking about the possible fallout, Sulley mindlessly roars in the scariest-sounding segment in the entire movie. It’s like the writers and sound techs saved the most fearsome noises for just that moment.

The only problem was Boo saw “the real Sulley” for the first time. Up until that point, he’d been a lovable lug to her, nicknamed “Kitty” because it’s the one non-gibberish word she can muster (that’s not “Mike Wazowski”). After she sees Sulley at his Sulley-est, she’s too scared of him to let him hold her. Mr. Waternoose then reveals his complicity in the evil plan, and he takes Boo and banishes Mike and Sulley to the same frozen wasteland as the Abominable Snowman (who’s actually a very nice guy).

Sulley is despondent after seeing how Boo looked at him, and for the first time, his affection for the child takes on a deeper meaning, a cause for self-reflection and assessment. He loves her so much that he starts to see his greatest strength — his talent at his work — as a detriment. He has reason to reassess his entire existence, the purpose for which he’s been groomed, the way he measures himself against others and comes out the victor.

How many of us have those same blindspots to our work? How many of us diligently cultivate a certain trait because it makes us good at our jobs but at the expense of our personal lives and relationships? How many of us chase the external validation that work provides, by way of recognition from superiors and colleagues, or actual fame, or promotions, or the biggest paycheck, or status and power? How many of us de-emphasize the things that really matter, like opinions of family and loved ones, support and kindness and any other manner of things that aren’t reflected in the workplace?

A lot of us, I bet. Monsters, Inc. isn’t arguing that those things are wrong simply because someone worth loving comes into your life. Remember, Boo ends up back in her world, back in her bedroom, both close and far away from Sulley. It’s not just the case that she comes into his life to stay and therefore it’s easy for him to see any defects in his life. That would be too neat, too convenient, and while it would be just as sweet, it would limit the degree and kind of change Sulley underwent.

It was more foundational than that. It revealed a truer version of himself, one he didn’t need to work on quite so much. In fact, maybe that’s why he felt he needed to work as hard as he did; maybe to scare and be fearsome is fundamentally against his nature. Through his exposure to Boo, whose giggles and laughs at any and all slapstick misfortune to befall Mike, Sulley figures out a powerful secret: Children’s laughter is 10 times more powerful than their screams.

Sulley was suddenly in charge of a business still in charge of keeping the lights on but one that went about it in a completely different way, with a completely different set of celebrities. This greater truth was revealed to Sulley, who then imposed it on the rest of Monstropolis, all because a precious little girl came into his life, scared him to death until she didn’t, softened his heart and showed him there’s more to life than just work.


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