I woke up a few mornings ago convinced that I was alive in a golden age of American cartooning. There was the South Park episode that I saw the previous night; the Simpsons episode I saw the night before that; the stack of cool graphic novels on my desk, which rested on the copy of the New York Review of Books with Anthony Grafton’s rapturous essay about Ben Katchor’s New York. I wandered over to the kitchen, where I noticed my copy of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel about two loony Jewish immigrant cartoonists that won last year’s Pulitzer Prize; I remembered that I had yet to see Ghost World and had missed Wallace and Gromit at the Film Forum. A thought balloon appeared above my head. On its surface, someone had spray-painted the title “A Golden Age of American Cartooning.” Then I put on my coat and hat and ventured out to see Monsters, Inc., the latest animated feature from Pixar.
Monsters, Inc. is a movie for children about a company named Monsters Inc., which is powered by scary monsters who harvest the primal emotions of children; this clever premise seems like enough to give the last surviving deconstructionist at Yale a hard-on. The animated stars of the movie are voiced by the actors John Goodman and Billy Crystal; Goodman is funny, and Crystal, as usual, is not. Crystal plays a plastic blob with a single, upsetting, Cyclopean eye; the blob resembles a cross between a Game Boy and an M&M. John Goodman’s character, a Henson-esque fur puff named Sully, is much more endearing. Still, the use of brand-name actors as the voices in cartoons has always seemed like a cheap device to allow lazy animators, writers, and producers to avoid the work involved in creating original characters. Watching Crystal and Goodman together provides considerably less pleasure or interest than watching Bugs Bunny eat a carrot or even a single animated California Raisin dance and sing like Marvin Gaye.
Like its predecessors, Pixar’s movies are informed by an underlying mythology. Disney refit European fairy tales; Lucas drew on Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces and on McNamara’s war in Vietnam; Pixar’s myths are the stuff of self-congratulatory industry banquets and the back pages of Variety. The movies are a post-Marxist’s dream, a series of self-referential narratives intended to quash parents’ fears about the morality of buying marketing-driven toys for their children. This point was made most directly by Pixar’s flagship franchise, the Toy Story movies, which postulated that mass-produced toys are actually soulful and caring—and made Buzz Lightyear dolls available at a Toys “R” Us near you.
While Pixar’s success might make for a rich dissertation in American studies, the movies lack even the slightest hint of the anarchic creativity that makes for great cartoons. Traditionally, cartoonists have made their livings by virtue of a sneaky contract with their audience, which in turn agrees to pretend that they are watching simple entertainment, rather than their own subterranean landscapes writ large. Bugs Bunny; Woody Woodpecker; Donald Duck; Krazy Kat; Superman; Batman; Snow White; the characters of R. Crumb, Zap!, and RAW; and all of their friends, enemies, and kin are equal in inventiveness, nuttiness, and depth to any cohort of American greats, in baseball, jazz, or rock ’n’ roll. This is one reason why Americans have stayed loyal to cartoons for over a century, despite repeated challenges from photography, radio, movies, television, video games, and other technologies that all have threatened at one time or another to displace cartoons, only to be transformed into the latest delivery system for one of mankind’s most ancient, subtle, and adaptable arts.
The most entertaining part of Monsters, Inc. is the high-concept premise, revolving around the company’s business, which employs monsters to extract screams from children in order to generate power for an imaginary monster universe that looks more or less like Hollywood, complete with sushi bars. The monsters’ pleasant assembly-line factory looks like the Disney lot. In order to extract the screams, the monsters pop through doors and into the bedrooms of sleeping children. The doors are the most winning of the movie’s details; they are solid objects that show Pixar’s animation style to its clearest advantage. This is especially true in the chase sequence in which the doors are put in motion on a beltlike apparatus, which resembles a gigantic animated version of the conveyor racks at your local French cleaners. The orchestration of color and movement in this sequence is particularly energetic and impressive; it would take years, and endless patience on the part of a very skilled team of animators, to accomplish an equivalent sequence by hand. Still, there is very little of emotional interest in the scene. When the chase was over, I found myself imagining the mechanics of the Monsters, Inc. ride at Disney World.
The movie’s most alarming technical failure, which may carry symbolic weight for at least some viewers, is the inability of Pixar’s computer-driven animators to capture any equivalent to the tonalities of the physical world. This is not normally a goal of animation. Pixar, however, tries to achieve the kind of techno-realism that makes the doors look at once like realistic objects and also cartoonlike and hollow. But Pixar spaces often look empty and cold. The volumes are wrong, and the shadows are mechanically drawn. Furry monsters warm these echoing spaces; the smooth-skinned monsters don’t. A human infant who crawls in through one of the doors is appealingly mischievous. But her flesh is poorly modeled and oddly colored; her skin looks plastic, but her movements are disturbingly alive. The problem might have been helped somewhat by gifting the child with speech. By deciding to make the character preverbal, Pixar draws attention to the absence of other recognizably human qualities in a children’s character that offers all the emotional rewards of a Teletubbies knockoff.
In fact, the film’s creators seem to have little sympathy for kids. Children in the movie are often screaming and crying; their fears are never presented as painful, sympathetic, or real. In Monsterland, being touched by a child is reputed to cause immediate death; monsters who are touched by children, or by their socks, are surrounded by faceless, contamination-suit-wearing workers who hose them down, shave off their fur, and destroy child-contaminated articles. In the end, of course, it turns out that children do not contaminate monsters and that laughter is a more potent power source than screams. Still, this revelation comes toward the end of the movie, and so it is hard to imagine that any child might participate in the imaginative universe of Monsters, Inc. with any real or lasting pleasure. Their emotions are simply fuel for an empire, just like the feelings of the children in the movie.