Exploring The Many Hurdles That Pixar's 'Monsters Inc.' Faced On The Road To The Big Screen

(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today's column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Monsters, Inc.)Thursday, November 1, 2001 ought to have been a very exciting day for Pete Docter. The stalwart Pixar animator, writer, and director was just hours away from a true milestone: the first feature film bearing his name as director was going to be released in theaters nationwide. It would be the fourth feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, and a milestone for the Emeryville, California studio: this was going to be their first film not directed by John Lasseter. It was going to be another wholly original story with an incredibly high-concept hook, big-name stars, and solid interest from audiences.The day should have been exciting. But Pete Docter was nowhere near Hollywood, or even Emeryville, that day. He was stuck in a courthouse in Wyoming, where lawyers representing Pixar would have to convince a judge to allow Monsters, Inc. to be released at all.

Put That Thing Back Where It Came From

Like a number of Pixar's most daring original films, Monsters, Inc. began its life at the Hidden City Cafe in California, during a now very well-known lunch between a number of the men who would direct some of the studio's most beloved films. Pete Docter  that day pitched the nugget of an idea that would lead him through the next seven years of creation. The nugget was simple: a film about monsters. He didn't have too much else at that point, but the idea eventually expanded into a what-if: what if the monsters every child believed was hiding in his or her closet was not only real, but scared those children just because it was their job?Docter, even in 2001, was one of the longest-tenured employees at Pixar. He was the tenth employee hired at the studio, and just the third animator; he began his career at Pixar in 1990, hired the day after his college graduation. Though Docter was credited as part of the crews for A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, he was largely not a huge part of those productions. After the roaring success of Toy Story, on which he was credited as one of the story writers, Docter was tasked with bringing his monster-film idea to life, as the fourth feature released from Pixar, and the first not directed by John Lasseter. (Considering that Lasseter was the face of Pixar for its earliest feature-film years, this was a big leap forward.)As has been the case for many of Pixar's films, the story of Monsters, Inc. didn't come together on its first try. The film that we all know focuses on two best friends, Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), living in Monstropolis. Mike and Sulley aren't just best friends; they live together and work in tandem at Monsters, Inc., where Sulley is the top Scarer in their division and Mike serves as his wingman and trainer. The big, furry, blue monster is just the right kind of Scarer to terrify any kind of kid, and the right kind of Scarer to infuriate his rival, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi). All is well, until one night, Sulley finds a door left stranded in their working environment, along with a curious little girl who he eventually nicknames Boo. In the film, a secondary twist is that monsters are as terrified of humans as we are of them, if not more so, believing that a single touch could kill them.

In the Zone

Docter's original idea was something totally different, focusing instead on an adult man who has to tangle with the monsters from his childhood returning from his imagination to bother him once more. (Something about that logline, at least to this writer, sounds weirdly in keeping with what would eventually be another Docter feature, Inside Out.) Over the span of four years, that original idea would shift into the story of the monsters themselves, eventually represented by Mike and Sulley, a classic odd-couple pairing in size, temperament, personality, and more. Once the concept of an adult interacting with monsters was jettisoned, though, Docter shifted the story's focus to be one about just one monster with a child. Even within that core relationship, which did carry over to the final product, there were changes. As detailed in the David Price book The Pixar Touch, there were iterations where the monster was an up-and-comer, where the child was a seven-year old with bullying siblings, where the child was a boy, etc. As Price also notes, at one point, the child was going to be African American, though that level of diversity wound up falling by the wayside. (An undercurrent we'll continue to return to throughout this series: although Pixar's films are largely, and understandably, beloved, the studio has had a very, very bad track record with hiring people of color to play substantial roles. At least, until the last few years.)Even Sulley was a tough nut to crack for Docter and his team. As the co-writer and director later noted in a 15th anniversary retrospective interview at Entertainment Weekly, "He was a janitor, he was a failed scarer, he was all these different things — and when we finally let that go and just said, 'Okay, he's the BEST scarer there. He's the star quarterback," then it all came into focus." Mike Wazowski also had to come into focus in the overall development of the film. During a story session in early 1998, it was decided that the character who would be Sulley would need some kind of sounding board throughout the film, and not just the child character with whom to interact. That idea led character designer Ricky Nierva to come up with the walking-eyeball concept that wound up leading to Mike.

Work Out That Flab

The other key to Monsters, Inc. came in the casting of the two lead characters. When the original Toy Story was casting, there was a chance that Buzz Lightyear would have sounded a lot different — Pixar had offered the role, at one point, to Billy Crystal. When Pete Docter approached him a few years later to voice the snarky and loquacious Mike, Crystal didn't hesitate to accept. (Whatever else is true, it's difficult to imagine the current visual design of Buzz to have the voice of the sarcastic, funny, and largely nebbishy Crystal.) The role of James P. Sullivan eventually landed with John Goodman, though there are apocryphal stories that Docter had reached out first to legendary comedian Bill Murray to play the head Scarer. Murray, famously enigmatic, never responded and so the search continued. Goodman, of course, feels perfectly natural as the large, but largely not scary, Sulley. (Our hero's only truly terrifying in one key moment, designed to cause a rift between him and little Boo; anyone who's seen Goodman in films like Raising Arizona and Barton Fink knows he can be frightening if he wants to be.)Mike and Sulley weren't the first duo to headline a Pixar film, yet unlike Woody and Buzz, they start as friends before having a brief separation. That plot point aside, though, Mike and Sulley are a more fun pair thanks to something intangible to the audience, but still invaluable: Crystal and Goodman recorded their dialogue in the same studio. Traditionally, even now, it's rare for that kind of recording setup to occur, typically because it's harder to get talent at the studio at the same time (among other reasons). The three previous Pixar features hadn't included any group recording sessions, but both Crystal and Goodman pushed for it, mercifully. It's impossible to pin down what it is about the byplay between Mike and Sulley that sounds different — there's less need for specific sound editing to time dialogue to seem as if one character is responding to the other, and their chemistry is more evident. The rest of the relatively small cast was filled out by impressive character actors: Steve Buscemi, just a few years after co-starring in The Big Lebowski with Goodman, takes on the role of antagonist as Randall Boggs. James Coburn offered his stentorian tones as Henry J. Waternoose. And Jennifer Tilly voiced Mike's girlfriend Celia. (Tilly, who is half-Chinese, is the first actor of color to appear in a Pixar film. Again, we're going to come back to this point a few more times over the course of this series.) Relative to the past three Pixar films, while the world of Monstropolis is vast, its denizens are fewer and further between.

That Darn Paperwork

That's arguably because the comedic tone of Monsters, Inc., more than its predecessors, is madcap farce. It's established early on that Monsters, Inc. is in a bit of trouble — as one monster helpfully tells Waternoose, they may meet their daily quota of scream collection, but only maybe. It's also established early on that monsters are so terrified of humans that any amount of contamination is dealt with swiftly and nastily. Once Sulley realizes that he has inadvertently let a child into Monstropolis, the action and pacing ramp up, with the subsequent events of the film taking place over the span of a full day in the monstrous city.In some respects, Monsters, Inc. doesn't travel too far in its story. Most of the film takes place either in Mike and Sulley's apartment, or within the factory walls of Monsters, Inc. itself. The limited scope was due to more daring choices that Pixar's animators were making with the characters themselves. The film did not require Pixar to push itself with the human characters — Boo is the only human who appears for more than a few seconds at a time. Instead, it was all about fur.Sulley would end up having more than two million hairs on his body, and they would all need to be animated accordingly. In effect, this was a doubling down, or a tripling or quadrupling down, for Pixar on the challenge that the animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios had once faced when animating Ariel in The Little Mermaid. That character's hair was meant to be distinctive and believable, in spite of the fact that it would often be floating in water, making one challenge all the more difficult. And it wasn't enough for Pixar that their team would animate literal millions of hairs on a single character's body. Those hairs would have to create shadows upon the rest of the character's body as needed, known as self-shadowing. The flip side of this effect is evident if you look at baby Molly in the first Toy Story. She's a character whose hair doesn't create shadows, adding to the overall sense that computer animation had room to grow. There was no going backwards for Pixar.The animation in the film also had to be distinct when crafting the slithery movement of Randall, whose chameleonic features make the character more frightening for Boo and simply harder to animate. Then, too, there would be the fast-paced finale, in which Mike and Sulley, with Boo, take a trip through countless doors into countless parts of the human world, from a trailer park in America to a Parisian flat to a beachside cottage. Just as Mike and Sulley are forced to keep up a manic charade, it often feels, even 20 years later, watching Monsters, Inc. that the animators had to do the same thing.

We Have a 2319

Before audiences could see Monsters, Inc., though, Pixar had to clear its first major legal hurdle. The court in Wyoming where Pete Docter found himself on November 1, 2001, literally one day before his first feature film was set to be released across the country, was the latest step in a case accusing the studio of plagiarism. Children's songwriter Lori Madrid sued Pixar, alleging that they had taken the core premise of their film from a poem she'd written in 1997, titled "There's A Boy In My Closet".Though the basic accusation may seem far-fetched, there was enough connective tissue between Madrid and Pixar that allowed for reasonable concern. Madrid had mailed the poem to a handful of publishers, including Chronicle Books. Chronicle, by 2001, had begun to work in tandem on coffee-table books with Pixar. (Think of all those The Art Of... books you might have seen at your local Barnes and Noble.) When, as Price's book details, Madrid's friends let her know about the trailer for Monsters, Inc., she and they presumed that the poem she'd since turned into a community-theater musical had become fodder for Pixar without them having contacted her or acknowledged her contribution. The suit was filed only weeks before the film was set to be released, with Madrid's lawyer asking for an injunction that would halt the film from being available in American movie theaters until after the suit was resolved.As is often the case with lawsuits of this matter, Monsters, Inc. did not wind up being tarred and feathered for being guilty of plagiarism. Something to note, and this is purely speculative: the first ads for Monsters, Inc., as was the case with some early Pixar teasers, feature a scene that doesn't actually occur in the film. Sulley and Mike wind up in a kid's bedroom, do a bit of riffing that hints at the chemistry Goodman and Crystal demonstrated in the final film, and that's that. Considering the topic of Madrid's poem, and the idea of monsters being afraid of humans, it's possible that the ad led her to presume more concrete plagiarism, even as the film itself isn't entirely reflective of that ad.The judge in the case, as you likely already deduced, did not issue an injunction halting the release of Monsters, Inc. (Price notes in The Pixar Touch that the elderly judge made wisecracks about how the children of his bailiffs would be extremely angry with him if he had issued the injunction.) The case itself would not be fully resolved until the summer of 2002, when the same judge decreed that in spite of some surface-level similarities, there wasn't enough evidence that Pixar had plagiarized Madrid's poem. Later that year, a separate case was brought against Pixar by the underground artist Stanley Mouse, alleging that his short film Excuse My Dust was pilfered by Pixar, specifically a character who looks an awful lot like an eyeball with legs. Mouse's case was settled outside of court, having been held up by a lack of tangible evidence. 

If I Didn’t Have You

But now, nearly 20 years later, we think positively of Monsters, Inc., because these cases made but a dent in the film's overall impact on audiences. Pixar's third fully original film was yet another hit at the box office, outgrossing Toy Story 2 by about $10 million domestically. (Considering that Monsters, Inc. arrived the same fall and winter as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, its box-office take is all the more impressive.) Critics and audiences alike praised the film, though it may have wound up as more likable than truly memorable for some. In 2001, at least, Monsters, Inc. had the slightly ill fortune of not being the first computer-animated film of the year, and certainly not the talk of the industry.The timing, once again, should have been perfect. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had chosen to implement a new category beginning with that year's films: Best Animated Feature. The success of films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Toy Story in other categories — along with Beauty's nomination in Best Picture — was coupled with a proliferation of other animated features from competing studios. Thus, there was a compulsion on the Academy's part to create a separate category that would guarantee victory for an animated film.So it was that the 2001 animated features got to be the first considered for the category. There were only three nominees that year, though: Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius; Pixar's Monsters, Inc.; and the winner, DreamWorks' Shrek. Yes, 2001 was the year of Shrek, which took the industry by storm at the time and walked away with the inaugural Best Animated Feature Oscar. (Your mileage may vary, but that is a victory that feels a lot less deserving with each passing year.)Monsters, Inc. didn't walk away empty-handed, though its sole victory felt less like a comment on the film and more like the industry finally caving and giving one of its longest-running Oscar losers a victory. Randy Newman, as much a fixture with Pixar features by this point, won his first Oscar for the boisterous duet "If I Didn't Have You", after losing 15 times previously. Only a couple years after failing to make a dent against Pixar and Disney, DreamWorks had made a case for itself as serious competition to both studios. (Fun fact, though: Shrek is the only in-house film DreamWorks won the Oscar for, though they did distribute the 2005 winner, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Pixar, including its nomination for this film, has been nominated 13 times for Best Animated Feature, and won 10 of those times, including for Toy Story 4.)Monsters, Inc. would become one of Pixar's go-to successes over time. It spawned a 2013 prequel (which we'll discuss eventually), as well as a theme-park attraction at Disney California Adventure, merchandise aplenty, and more. Even now, Monsters, Inc. is one of the more likable films in the Pixar stable, without quite becoming as emotionally potent as the other films Pete Docter's directed. There is an eventual surrogate father-daughter relationship between Sulley and Boo, and Goodman does an excellent job in selling that relationship, but the speed with which Sulley's attitude changes is a bit too quick, all things considered. It's a fun, entertaining film that hinted at Pixar's emotional evolution. But only with their next film would they fully embrace a more mature side.That same film would also heighten tensions in an already-dicey relationship between Pixar and Disney, the latter represented by a CEO whose days were numbered.


Next Time: Go beyond the sea with a neurotic clownfish.