This isn’t exactly a timely film review! Monsters Inc came out 13 years ago! But, the slowness of my brain meant that it has taken me about a dozen viewings for this culturalist critique to crystallise in my cranium!
The plot of Monsters Inc is briefly as follows. The narrative revolves around two main monster characters, big furball James P. Sullivan (Sulley) and little one-eyed Mike Wazowski. Sulley and Wazowski live in Monstropolis, where they work for what seems to be the private monopoly that is Monsters Inc(orporated). Monsters Inc is run by Chairman Henry J. Waternoose III, in whose family’s ownership the company has been for several generations.
Monsters Inc generates all the energy to power Monstropolis. This energy is generated by…children’s screams! Portals are created from Monstropolis into the human world on Earth via children’s bedroom doors. Trained ‘scarer’ monsters enter the bedrooms of sleeping children, wake them up, and scare them. The ensuing screams are collected in containers and feed into the energy grid. Sulley is Monsters Inc’s champion scarer.
A problem arises when a rival monster, Randall, leaves a bedroom door activated after hours and a young human girl finds herself in Monstropolis. Children are considered fatally toxic. Sulley finds the girl, Boo, and, together with Wazowski, the three embark on a whirlwind adventure to try to return Boo to her room without anyone finding out. This aim soon fails. However, Sulley and Wazowski instead discover that Monsters Inc Chairman Waternoose is in cahoots with rival scarer Randall to develop a hideous new torture method for extracting intensified screams from children.
In the process of developing a friendship with Boo, Sulley becomes distressed to recognise himself as a child-scarer. He also serendipitously discovers that children’s laughter generates much more energy than their screams. Finally, as Sulley and Wazowski become too much of an impediment to Waternoose’s plans, they are banished into the Himalayas, leaving Boo as guinea pig in the clutches of Waternoose and Randall. Unsurprisingly, all ends well as our two heroes find a way back to the scaring floor of Monsters Inc, rescue Boo, send her home, expose Waternoose and Randall to state justice, and convert Monsters Inc to laughter-based energy generator. The kids are happy, Monsters Inc employees are happy, and Monstropolis is happy.
So, what the hell has this all to do with capitalism? A great deal. First, what is fascinating is that, while the wonderful imagination of Monsters Inc‘s creators seems infinite, it is in fact hugely limited by their ability to imagine alternative social systems. Monstropolis is clearly intentionally little different to New York City, not just in terms of its built environment and multiculturalism, but in the fact that it is a capitalist society. We can imagine alternative monster worlds, but, to paraphrase Frederic Jameson, we cannot imagine alternatives to capitalism.
Second, in Monsters Inc, traditional gender roles are effortlessly upheld. The real producers are the tough scaring men, risking life and limb to keep the city powered. In the background are a combination of weedy, nerdy guys and, below them, female administrators and secretaries. The company is, of course, owned by one old man. I suspect he’s ‘white’, but he’s a monster so you can’t tell for sure, but his name and accent are suggestive of white American old money.
Of course, Monsters Inc as a capitalist company is subjected to critique. The owner turns out to be a profit-hungry, erm, monster who is willing to torture children and get rid of loyal, honest, hard-working employees in a bid to revive flagging profitability. Here, then, is the cathartic moment in Monsters Inc. We as viewers are invited to purge ourselves of negative, hateful feelings towards capitalism as a system that puts profit before people. This moment serves as a useful outlet for such feelings of personal and collective pain and anger. But, soon after, the film must restore the status quo. Thus, the film ends up as a perfect example of system maintenance. First, it is not capitalism that is to blame, but just one or two ‘bad apples’ – a rogue chairman and employee – in an otherwise healthy system. Second, capitalism is morally restored by the filmmakers showing us that it is entirely compatible with ethically sound business practices. Screams are replaced by laughter as the generator of the city’s energy. This has obvious resonances with our current ecological predicament. Many liberal environmentalists see no problem with capitalism per se. Our environmental challenge can simply be met by a transition from scary fossil fuels to loveable renewables. After that, the economic system can carry on as before.
Overall, Monsters Inc functions as a classic example of film as producer and preserver of hegemonic ideology. First and foremost, it produces an exciting, imaginative alternative monster world…that is still capitalist and patriarchal. Second, it allows for collective catharsis by creating an opportunity for us to purge ourselves of feelings of anger and animosity towards capitalism. Third, it remedies the situation by emphasising that the cause of the crisis was not the system, but one rogue individual, and by resolving the crisis by redeeming the company (and the system) with new ethical, win-win practices.
You might now be thinking that I am a humourless windbag unable just to take a film, especially a kid’s film, at face level and just enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong. I love this film. I think it’s absolutely hilarious, imaginative, and thrilling. However, if you think the analysis I offer has a grain of truth in it, then I hope it makes you think some more about the nature of popular culture and the crucial political role that it plays in maintaining this exploitative, corrupt, and deeply unjust system. Why not apply this kind of analytical approach to your own TV or film faves?!