Thoughts On: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
The top-ranking scare factory worker in the monster world lets a child loose.
Monsters Inc. is one of Pixar’s most touching and heartfelt films thanks to its brilliant exploration of, in a certain sense, parent-child relationships. A significant movie in regard to technological CG innovation, Monsters Inc. has aged slightly, but is still an impressive work in regard to its modelling, world building and, in particular, textures (look to the fur of Sully). Beyond this, the voice performances are excellent, the narrative – despite a few major plot holes in the third act – is well crafted and paced, and the humour is perfectly balanced with moments of genuine drama, leaving this film with a heavy emotional punch.
However, I’ve always questioned how the emotional side of this narrative fits in with the world building and general premise. In such, I’ve wondered why there is such a strong, yet ambiguous, link between the monster world and themes of parenting.
To begin analysing this, we’d have to take a cue from the opening…
Our movement into this narrative is a movement through the doors of a closet, into the imagination of a child who believes there are monsters within. What this shot says is that we are going to be told a story about a child’s perspective. Moreover, we are going to be a story about why a child thinks there are monsters in their closet and how to approach this as a parent.
Let’s not jump too far ahead though. The first thing we are told when we move into this world of monsters is all about its corporate industry- in short…
… Monsters Inc. This is a very strange thing to be told if you step back and think about it. If you were to build a world around monsters, would it not be a creepy one filled with smoke, shadows, darkness and fright? Instead of this, Pixar have given us a heavily corporate world that somewhat resembles our own – which begins to suggest that Monsters Inc. means to comment on the real world as one inhabited by working parents. But, with that said, what has this got to do with the idea that this is a film that indulges a child’s perspective? Why would a child think of a monster world in their closet as a corporate one?
The answer lies in the fact that monsters and parents – especially fathers – are heavily linked in this narrative. By looking at the fuel of this corporate economy, we get further incite into this idea.
Children’s screams serve as the energy of this world – a sinister idea that, when turned on its head, makes a lot more sense.
By the end of the narrative, the monster world essentially learns that a child’s laughter can fuel their economy. This idea implies that an economy is essentially run for children; parents’ reason for going to work is their children and family – this is their fuel. A child’s laughter, their happiness, fuelling an economy is a rather romantic and sentimental idea, but, as is framed, is a coherent one. It suggests that parents go to work because they have a good home life and aim to sustain it. So, with that said, when we return to the beginning of the film…
… we can see that Monsters Inc. is a critique of the capitalist world and its effect on parents – all from a child’s perspective. However, to fully understand this critique, we have to take a step back from this narrative and back to the start of the essay.
Why do children think that there are monsters in their closet? If you asked a psychologist in the 50s…
… they’d likely refer to a behaviourist school of thought. Behaviourism, as founded by John B. Watson, is an approach to psychology that assumes that people can be, and are primarily, conditioned by their environment. So, in regard to the question, “Why do children think that there are monsters in their closet?”, the answer they’d likely give is that they have been conditioned to think this by their parents. In such, their parents are either too affectionate, leaving the children afraid of being alone, or these kids have been made to fear getting out of bed – maybe by parents telling them that monsters will come and get them if they do.
This psychological school of thought would imply two solutions to children fearing monsters in their closet. The first would not really be a solution, instead, it would suggest that children should, to a certain extent, be conditioned if they are to stay in bed, meaning, fear, the ‘monster in the closet’ lie, is a good thing. The second solution that would aim to eradicate that fear would be to leave children in the dark and let them get used to it – possibly by weaning them away from night lights.
If we were to put ourselves in the shoes of a child subjected to this treatment, we would associate night time with fear and loneliness – of our parents neglecting us. In such, this fear of monsters would, in a certain sense, be a fear of our parents’ neglect. Why would they do this? So they can condition us to grow up and be like them, to get a job and work in the corporate world?
Considering again the idea that economies are fuelled…
… by children, a child being subjected to this nightly routine would also think (indulging the metaphor of the narrative) that the world of adults is run by their own fear. Instead of going to work for us, our happiness and well-being, parents would be going to work to fund this neglect and fear – all for the sake of us growing up.
However, in the monster world, this approach to ‘running the economy’, isn’t working very well. Children aren’t so easily scared anymore. What this metaphorically translates to is, left at home without their parents, they have grown immune to parental authority – their fear tactics and conditioning. As in Poltergeist…
… it is then said that children being raised by their T.V sets is not really the best thing. What this narrative then asserts is that children shouldn’t be neglected and maybe shouldn’t be raised with fear-based authority. In turn, this makes a call for a reconsideration of the question, why do children think that there are monsters in their closet?
Is it that parents are monsters and that they are over-protective of, or controlling in a fear-based manner, their children? Maybe, but, this is probably not the entire case wrapped. Behaviourism doesn’t really explain why children think that there are actual monsters in their closet. Why not rats? Why not clowns? Why not vampires? Kids are scared of those too. Why must it be animal-esque things with claws, tentacles, bright eyes and sharp teeth?
Evolutionary psychology would suggest that we are afraid of things in the dark with these features, because these are attributes of animals that would attack us in times before cities when we were hunter-gatherers. The claws, eyes and teeth are hawks, big cats or bears – the tentacles water-based predators. The reason why children report seeing hints of these creatures when they are alone at night, but not necessarily when they have someone in the room with them…
… is because humans historically slept in groups. What this means is that children see monsters in their closet because they are afraid of being alone and unprotected at the most dangerous of times – a reaction that their genes reinforced. To combat this, children need to not feel neglected in their sleep and not be made to fear what may reside in the darkness. In short, the monsters, if they do exist, shouldn’t be seen to be dangerous or scary.
This metaphor translates to Monsters Inc. both directly and subtextually. Directly, Monsters Inc. is about replacing that fear, which shouldn’t be used to raise a child, with joy – laughter.
And subtextually, Monsters Inc. is about developing better bonds with a child. More specifically, Monsters Inc. can be seen as a tale in which a father figure brings his daughter to work and in turn learns to see his work life as one fuelled by her joy. Greater complexity is added to this when we consider Randall’s role. As a monster with powers of invisibility…
… it seems that Randall, if seen as a parent, has a tendency to disappear from a child’s life. Now, if you consider the theory that Randall is Andy’s monster – as the wallpaper implies – he begins to reveal a little bit more about his character. If Andy is scared at night, haunted by this figure of a neglectful parent, then it’s clear his father has not only left his family, but that this hugely impacts his childhood – which adds greater poignancy to the themes of family in Toy Story.
However, returning to the point, as well as Randall being a neglectful figure, he is hyper-competitive in his work of scaring children. Both of these sides come together through his invention…
This not only allows him to accumulate more scream energy, but it takes the monster out of the process – an extreme outcome of the metaphor of letting T.V raise children; now, they’re not even being conditioned by neglectful parents.
So, it’s this that Sully and Mike are metaphorically fighting against in their quest to look after Boo. They are not only learning to better look after a child, with care and attention, but are actively redefining what it means to work for your family – your child.
When we now step back out of the door leading us into this universe, it’s clear that there is a strong commentary on us, who are now standing in a child’s bedroom. So, I’ll end by turning to you. What are your thoughts on Monsters Inc. and all we’ve covered today?
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