The Monsters Mystery: $63 Million and Counting

Peter Docter’s Monsters, Inc. was co-directed by Lee Unkrich and David Silverman, from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson, based on a story by Mr. Docter and animated by more people than I can count or credit. This is not an area of cinema with which I am either comfortable or confident. If I weren’t a movie reviewer, I would pass up Monsters, Inc. with no regrets. The fact that it has reportedly broken box-office records with $63 million in its first weekwould not shake my resolve as a non-reviewer, but as a reviewer I have to check up occasionally on the mainstream.

Yet after seeing it, about all I can say is that its narrative does not work for me as well as Shrek ‘s did earlier this year. Some of my colleagues have already noted that Monsters, Inc. might be the victim of bad timing in coming out almost immediately after the Sept. 11 massacre-and it remains to be seen if Harry Potter will seem any less ill-timed. Of course, the tastes of tots and their parents in tandem is a subject I am singularly disinclined to explore. Still, the plot premises of Monsters, Inc. strike me as downright peculiar for a supposed children’s entertainment.

First we’re told that there’s a high-tech corporation with a full assortment of monsters on hand to spring out of bedroom closet doors, frightening small children to the point of their screaming out loud. Next we’re informed that these screams provide the power for the monster operation. Here the movie gets surreal, even for an animated cartoon: A supply of closet doors comes down an assembly line; when a monster opens one of these seemingly detached doors, a child’s bedroom magically appears in view, with all four walls, a collection of toys and a child in bed-thus violating the three-dimensional consistency of the monster workplace. This conceit is, like the rest of the film, longer on ingenuity than intelligence. The legerdemain is admittedly clever, but it seems too elaborate for my mind, though perhaps not for a child’s.

Besides, are parents supposed to be enchanted by the idea of children being induced to scream in fright for some ulterior Matrix -like purpose? How old does a child have to be to stop being frightened by things that go bumpetty-bump in the night? Can the terror be turned away with a night light-or what else are night lights for? Shrek doesn’t raise these problems because it works on a fairy-tale allegorical level, whereas Monsters, Inc. functions as a sci-fi futurist fantasy with lots of noisy machinery. And I warn you, the din is often deafening.

A problem arises when the screaming diminishes to the point that the company’s energy supply is depleted. It is about this time that we learn the monsters are more afraid of the children than the children are of the monsters. Any threat of con-tamination of monster by child sets off an alarm at the Child Detection Agency, which dispatches huge emergency workers in sealed yellow rubber outfits to decontaminate the premises and personnel. The mere use of the words “contaminate” and “decontaminate” have unavoidably taken on new connotations since the anthrax scare; but, of course, pandering to children in the audience by making monsters terrified of the child surrogates on the screen is a crafty marketing maneuver.

Of the human characters, we come to know a young girl named Boo the best.Unfortunately, she’s so lacking in charm that a fatal imbalance results from having suchaccomplished talents doing the monsters’ voices as John Goodman (as the chief monster Sulley), Billy Crystal (as his wise-cracking one-eyed sidekick, Mike Wazowski), Steve Buscemi (as Randall Boggs, the reptilian

villain) and James Coburn (as Henry J.Waternoose, the pompous C.E.O. of Monsters, Inc.). How I’d love to see these larger-than-life actors in a live-action update of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

But even the voice-over actors must make do with a mere handful of satiric lines until the plot finally degenerates into the kitschy-koo sentimentality of cuddly Sulley’s pathetic attachment to Boo. After a coup d’état by Sulley and Mike, in which Henry J. Waternoose is dragged away in chains for threatening the lives of children, the policy of Monsters, Inc. is changed to making children laugh-and thus providing an even greater source of energy for the company. This led me to wonder whether parents would consider it an improvement for their children to laugh instead of scream at night? Whatever happened to a good night’s sleep, perchance to dream?

The problem with mixing pale human beings with irresistibly anthropomorphic animals goes back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and has never really been solved-even in Japan. And though I like The Simpsons up to a point, I must confess that I am more addicted to The West Wing and Law and Order while I wait in vain for grown-up movies to come pouring out of the Hollywood kiddy factories.

For that matter, who the hell is Harry Potter , and when do I get to see this film? Do the distributors know something I don’t? I certainly can’t guarantee them a good review. But then, back in 1964 no one expected me to call Richard Lester’s, Alun Owen’s and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of juke-box movies.”

A Tale of Tourette’s

Rob Morrow’s Maze , from a screenplay by Bradley White and Mr. Morrow, begins with a double signification in its title, referring both to the name of its protagonist-Lyle Maze (Rob Morrow)-and the quasi-hallucinatory effects of his affliction with Tourette’s syndrome. Mr. Morrow hit upon the idea for Maze after seeing a documentary, Twitch and Shout , about people from all walks of life afflicted with the disorder.

Here I must plead complete ignorance, having never seen Twitch and Shout and having no personal experience with any Tourette’s sufferers. So I was not prepared for the first shots of Mr. Morrow convulsively twitching and making disturbing knocking noises with his tongue and gums. I kept waiting for an explanation of Maze’s bizarre behavior, perhaps a visit to a doctor’s office or some clinical discussions. Instead, what I got was a very sensually passionate love story-though one without sex-involving Maze, his best friend Mike (Craig Sheffer) and Mike’s girlfriend Callie (Laura Linney). Indeed, Mike and Callie are the only people with whom Maze feels comfortable, even though he’s becoming a public figure in the art world for his painting and sculpture.

When Callie offers to pose for Maze’s nude studies after a previous model finds his Tourette’s symptoms too distracting and destructive for her (and his) professional concentration, Maze sees Callie bathed in a warm orange glow that is a reflection of Mr. Morrow’s visual subjectivity on this project. After Mike has left her alone to pursue an idealistic medical adventure on an eight-month sojourn in Africa, Callie confides to Maze that she’s pregnant. Callie has not told Mike of her condition, and she’s fed up with being sacrificed for the sake of his humanity-serving-and-saving principles. Callie indicates to Maze that she’s willing to start an affair with him, but despite his intense feelings for her, Maze cannot bring himself to betray his best friend.

What happens instead is a long nurturing period in which Callie and Maze are inseparable until Callie brings forth a son. Unselfish to the end, Maze has written to Mike about Callie’s impending delivery, and Mike returns, more convinced than ever that he’s done the right thing. Callie is confronted with the dilemma of what to do with Mike and what to do with Maze. The nice thing about this movie, in an era of chic open endings, is that Callie finally does make a decision, and we are convinced that it is the right one.

Mr. Morrow, Mr. Sheffer and Ms. Linney expand this intimate chamber drama into something much more by the modulated force and eloquent restraint in the expression of their emotions; left unsaid are the usual alibis of disability. With the simplest means, Mr. Morrow and his colleagues have fashioned a stirring entertainment of charm and humor. Maze is the best kind of independent filmmaking to shame the somnolent mainstream.

Tatou Me

Laurent Firode’s Happenstance ( Le Battement d’Ailes du Papillon), from his own screenplay, suggests in its French title that butterflies’ wings fluttering over the Atlantic Ocean can cause a tsunami tidal wave in the Pacific. Audrey Tatou, here cast in a pivotal ensemble role, gives a more interesting performance than she did in her overly bossy, fussy title role in Amélie . For one thing, she does a lot more listening in Happenstance as a badgered household-appliance clerk than she did as a know-it-all in Amélie . And Ms. Tatou listens beautifully, with both charm and humor, as she wends her way from setback to setback to stumble finally onto her true love, a young Algerian named Younès (Faudel). As in Serendipity , two characters who are meant for each other are enhanced and enriched by all their reverses until, in the end, they are spiritually prepared for each other.

The Paris of Happenstance is much less the quaint fairy-tale Paris of Amélie . There is a lot more bite and spite and bitterness and crime, all woven together to form the tapestry of individual destiny. People lie all the time to gain an advantage, but are generally found out and humiliated in the process. The “happy” ending can also serve as a grotesque parody of all happy endings. Happenstance is ultimately a celebration of human perversity in the face of life’s hidden design.