Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Pixar Animation Studios' love affair with franchising continues with their first-ever prequel, Monsters University. In keeping with my quest to have a review of every single Pixar film up on this blog, it seemed the ideal time to take a peek at that film's august precursor.

Though a truly legendary (and alas! clearly, not to be repeated soon), almost uninterrupted run of films from 2003 until 2010 that were very truly "family films", tapping into emotions rich and honest enough for adults with characters and situations simple and entertaining enough for children left Pixar Animation Studios with a reputation as the grown-up among American animation studios, they were still ultimately bound to the mission of all Western commercial animation in the wake of Walt Disney's empire-building: they made kids' films. Kids' films that, from time to time, they disguised immensely well by making them about tragic, widowed octogenarians or rats with an all-consuming desire to create edible art. But still, kids' films.

That's not, by the way, a slam: lots of us were kids at one point, and to judge from the reception afforded to the ludicrous juvenalia promoted as major Hollywood filmmaking, plenty of us still are. Better, then, to have the absolute best kids' films we can possibly get our hands on. In Pixar's case, I wonder if it gets any better than 2001's Monsters, Inc. - the studio's fourth feature, the first not directed by John Lasseter, and probably the one that is most overtly and unapologetically for children, though by all means, it offers plenty in compensation to the adults seeing the movie with those children.

We'll get there, but not until I have restored the film its dignity as a narrative that meets little kids on their own level with very nearly the same gravity as a film that e.g. provides a complex universe and code of behavior for the toys that plainly come to life when we're done playing with them. And I would do that by posing a straightforward question: what is Monsters, Inc. about? Not, I would hold, what you probably think it is. At heart, the film's driving message is exactly what G.K. Chesterton was getting at in his defense of children's fantasy, one of the most important pieces of children's literary criticism ever written:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.*
Though it's nothing so violent as that in Monsters, Inc. The dragons here are the good guys, and they are not defeated but normalised and defanged. The creepy-crawlies in your closet and under your bed? They don't want to eat you, they're just blue-collar utilities workers who are terrified of you getting near them. And the best thing for the monsters doesn't even turn out to be scared children, but laughing children, we learn in a twist ending that might be the gentlest single moment in Pixar - the whole final five minutes is as plaintively sweet as anything else the studio ever did, the closest they ever came to the innocence and "no bad guys" mentality of Pixar chief John Lasseter's beloved Studio Ghibli.

It's an ironic and perhaps out-of-place finish - one might profitably argue "hypocritical" even, though I love the movie too much to be the one to mount that argument - for the film that did more than anything else to cement the Pixar Formula, as it would come to dominate their movies over the years (and not just their own: Walt Disney Animation's Wreck-It Ralph follows it to a T): the first third establishes a fascinating alternate world, the second third explores it using unerringly lovable characters, and ramps up to a loving, emotional release that gets delayed until the the very end by the final third, an extended chase scene. It's exactly the plot skeleton that makes Toy Story 3 a masterpiece, arguably compromises WALL·E, and makes Up the tonally weirdest animated film of the present century. Technically speaking, the structure debuted with the previous Pixar movie, Toy Story 2 (it's embryonically in the first Toy Story, as well), but MI codifies it and runs with it to an extreme: the abrupt shift from the fanciful, flawlessly cartoon-logical chase through an infinite factory full of teleporting doors to the waterworks of the close shot (and if the last minute of this movie doesn't make your eyes wet, I just don't know what to do with you) is unprecedented in Pixar, and would shortly become their absolutely favorite trick to play, though how consistently they manage to do it well is ultimately a matter of personal taste.

But back to the matter at hand: humanising monsters, as one might humanise toys or ants. From a purely conceptual standpoint, Monsters, Inc. is as imaginative as any animated film made in a generation: it creates a society for a wide-ranging menagerie of monsters of every description, analogises that society to a generically American city, and presents its monsters as entirely normal people in every regard. The city of Monstropolis is a teeming mass of background details that are frankly ridiculous in the effort that goes into "monstering" them: it's as ideal a candidate for freeze-frame viewing as you'll ever find, just to bask in the unnervingly comprehensive production design and art direction. It's not worth cataloging it all, neither the details nor the referential jokes (though I have to go on record as saying that the re-enactment of a scene from the 1952 Chuck Jones short Feed the Kitty is as noble an homage to classical animation as Pixar has ever performed), because even a cursory viewing can't help but pick up at least some of the work that went into creating a deep, totally plausible environment for the film's action, using indescribable breadth of imagination to create the illusion of a quotidian world.

Even the heroes are basically workaday figures: James "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and his best friend Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) are employed by the utility firm that harnesses the scream energy of children as a fuel source for Monstropolis, where they are the long-ranking #1 team at scream collection, and for almost a whole act, the only conflict that motivates them is trying to beat the unpleasant Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) to setting a new record for most career scares. It's little, character-driven stuff, and it only increases slightly when the actual plot kicks in: a human child, nicknamed by Sulley "Boo" (Mary Gibbs), sneaks into the Monsters, Inc. building through an open portal, and immediately latches onto the big furry monster she insistently calls "kitty".

Nominally, the two monsters are racing against hope to get Boo back into the human world - and right on schedule, it turns out that she's actually at the center of a nefarious plot to extract screams from children through vastly more horrible means than just scaring them. But until Mike and Sulley are banished to the human world for stumbling onto this intelligence, inaugurating the action-packed third of the movie, Monsters, Inc. remains defiantly and delightfully tiny. A massive, disproportionate amount of its appeal to adults - leastways, to every adult I have ever discussed the movie with - is centered around Boo, who appears to be just shy of three years old, with a vocabulary even younger (her part was recorded by following Gibbs around with a microphone as she was playing, leading to such utterly adorable non sequiturs as "I"m Tigger!" while wearing a hard hat), and is abnormally, fearfully cute. Among the cutest toddlers in cinema history, certainly. And there's an obvious, inevitable intimacy and smallness that happens when a film is built to such a degree around the relationship between a big hairy monster and a toddler.

Successfully combining intimacy with a sprawling alt-universe world, marrying a gentle character comedy to a slam-bang chase finish - this is exactly what Pixar was doing at its best in its glory years, though its success at doing all these things is debatable, perhaps (Monsters, Inc. has always struck me as being somewhat less enthusiastically received than most of the studios' 2000s output). This is all married to super-shiny technology, and all - the new software designed to render individual strands of hair made this, in 2001, the most complex and sophisticated computer-animated film ever produced - but that's simply not the point of any of this. It's technology designed to be invisible, drawing us more fully into the setting but not bragging about it. For this fixedly sweet bedtime story and exercise in imaginative possibility, there could be no better fit.