Where the Mild Things Are


Adept smugglers of neurotic subtexts, children’s narratives can be notoriously subversive (as Alison Lurie’s Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups points out), but not exclusively for prepubescent society. Pixar’s Toy Story films explore a classic other-world—what the toys do when the bedroom door is shut—and end up backlighting the melancholic mystery of aging, while Osmosis Jones smears the demographic line in daring to suggest that our self-policing physiognomies follow the same paradigms as our pop entertainment. Filthy with metaphor, undernourished and otherwise, Monsters, Inc. is a gentle, insulated contraption that, like the other Pixar films, posits a secret microcosmos running parallel to our own—and living parasitically off it. Maximal miniaturists, the Pixar crew exploit the mythic impulse to imagine synchronous faerie worlds; the results can be Swiftian.

Here, we have a post-industrial snarl on a Lovecraftian archetype: the lurker in the closet. Every child’s dreaded nighttime visitor is actually a Wild Thing utility worker, lighting in from his or her alt-dimensional Monstropolis and terrifying children in order to provide amperage for the population’s energy needs. The titular corporation, in fact, is a massive, rolling-blackout Con Ed on the edge of collapse: “Kids are tougher to scare these days,” groans the company’s five-eyed Jabba-crab CEO (James Coburn). The potential for satire is formidable—a cuddly and chipper technological society thriving on the horror of human children, fear being the primary resource for a populace anxious only about productivity numbers. A tabloid headline mentions a baby with five heads—its “parents thrilled,” presumably because the spawn’s capitalist usefulness as a terrorizer of slumbering tots is assured.

But Monsters, Inc.—directed by Pixar soldier Pete Docter, not by master digital comic John Lasseter—turns out to be stingy on context, commentary, and the prism-ing view of pop culture that made the earlier films mint. Far from referencing A Nous la Liberté, Docter’s movie presents modern industry as a healthful source of pride, however subject to espionage. The chilling matter of tortured childhood phobias is the scenario’s silent partner; that is, until the movie’s rogue human two-year-old (Mary Gibbs) witnesses her favorite monster, Sully (John Goodman), roar on the job. The film’s hulking, horned, turquoise-puce hero, Sully is a touch too sweet to buy. Ironically, guilt is his main mode, as he and his cohort Mike (Billy Crystal)—essentially a giant soybean with limbs and a single eye—spend much of the movie trying to get the toddler back through her closet door before the monster municipality’s SWAT-detox force ferrets her out.

Speedy and wittily designed by cartoonists who can draw (compared with the lumpy draftings of Shrek), the various characters all seem inspired by Gahan Wilson, in his Playboy mode. The obligatory roller-coaster climax—set in the company’s automated warehouse of portals—plays like a food-fight riff on the doorway-as-dreamscape jokes from Un Chien Andalou, but the film’s various discomfitures are fastidiously whitewashed (unlike, say, the under-the-bed ballad of infinite lonesomeness in Toy Story 2). Of course, the kids won’t care, and parents will be relieved there are no sexual references they’ll have to avoid explaining to their kindergartners.

A slightly more caustic view of secret forces at work—namely, serendipity of the Magnolia variety—Laurent Firode’s Happenstance is too irreverent to be arch. Life paths intersect at Rube Goldberg junctures, karmic acts circle around, small events trigger larger ones, and the two dozen or so characters glance off each other like slow-motion bullets ricocheting around a small room. Amélie‘s Audrey Tautou plays another wide-eyed urban sprite, this one informed by a horoscope-reading stranger that she’ll meet the love of her life; from there, it’s cross-purposes, fateful heads of lettuce and splats of bird crap, bad luck, good luck, que sera sera. The original title, Le Battement d’Ailes du Papillon, refers to the meteorologists’ much abused Butterfly Effect (a butterfly in Peking = altered storm systems in New York), but Firode’s characters are hardly far apart, and their arbitrary connections are seductive but trite, particularly once you realize the entire machine has been engineered to bring Tautou face to face with her dream date. Being French, the film at least has indelible details—something a Hollywood remake would fix but good.