I was nine years old when Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. was released, and I’m not entirely sure if that was when my mother and I came to love it, or if that happened later, because it feels like we’ve always loved it. It feels like the movie has literally always been a part of my mother’s limited, yet quality favorite-movie roster—which also includes School of Rock, the Pierce Brosnan remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory—and I have a long history of caring about movies. But no matter when exactly the movie came into our lives, there’s no denying it was pivotal in keeping us bonded throughout my adolescence, when I got defiant and my attitude took over and I became the essence of a difficult teenager. The movie was a regular watch for us for a long time, but as I grew up, it shuffled out of my personal rotation like a lot of things tend to throughout life, clearing space to make room for new interests and passions. Now firmly planted in adulthood—I turn 30 next month—I revisited it, saw it with an adult perspective. It’s still a hilarious and silly buddy comedy, with jokes that please kids and adults alike. That hasn’t changed. But now, the heart of the film—its characters and their relationships—feels like a mirror image of my mother and I, how we’ve loved and lived alongside one another our entire lives.
The 2001 animated comedy follows monsters Sully (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal), whose world is flip-turned upside-down when a girl escapes the human world via her closet and makes her way into the monster world. Monsters, naturally, come through the closets of young children and scare them at night. But Sully (a top scarer at Monsters Incorporated, a business that runs like ConEd) and Mike (his trusty co-pilot on the scare floor) have hearts of gold and, reluctantly at first, take on the task of getting the young girl—who, naturally, forms an attachment to them both—back to her bedroom.
Like a lot of you probably feel about your own matriarchal figures, my mother is one of the most courageous, strong and purely good people in the world. While rewatching the movie, it was stunningly clear to me that my mom—based on those, and other, traits—is a textbook Sully. An archetypal heroine. She’s always been the heroine in my life, at least, swooping in on any problem, big or small, and taking it on even if she didn’t want to or didn’t know how…which is the inciting impulse in both the film and Sully’s personal arc. From helping me plot how to take on credit card debt to coming in clutch with a lighter when I could’ve sworn I put one in my bag, she has sacrificed herself to many of my crises and ushered me safely to the other side.
As for Mike, the lovable round little one-eyed weirdo who is quick with a joke and loyal to a fault? That would be me. I have nearly too much in common with the iconic Crystal character: I’m the first one to make a fool of myself to make someone laugh, I’m supportive, I’m just happy to be involved. And I need my partner in crime, you know? That’s who my mom has become in my adult years, despite our rocky relationship in my pre-teens. I was the stubborn, defiant kid who was giving the middle finger behind my parents’ backs and everyone else’s, too scared to truly be a rebel in the limelight but still aching to defy authority nonetheless. It was shortly after Avril Lavigne’s first album came out. So, it was a formative phase. I’ve since grown out of it, but now, it feels good to know I can always count on her, and that, where it counts, we think alike. Mike isn’t Mike without Sully, and Sully isn’t Sully without Mike.
Speaking of rocky, my relationship with my mom still has its moments. I think most maternal (and probably paternal) relationships do. We fight how Mike and Sully fight. We’re both stubborn and steadfast in our beliefs; it’s hard to get either of us to admit our wrongs—and sometimes harder still to get us to listen. That’s something Mike throws in Sully’s face after the pair get banished from the monster world following their discovery of a sinister plot involving the child they’ve been protecting and Monsters, Inc. CEO Mr. Waternoose. “You should’ve just listened to me,” Mike says. “You never listen.” But Mike doesn’t listen either; it’s a two-way street. That’s something I’ve found myself saying a lot to my mom over the years for all different kinds of reasons, but it probably rings more true than anything we say to one another when tensions are high. It’s something we’re continuously working toward, but when it counts, we pull it together—like these characters inevitably do.
We make up the same way they do, too. Like the scene after the ragtag pair splits up after a seismic rift, and Sully returns to the monster world without Mike after getting banished: No matter what is said, what harsh words get exchanged when tensions are high between us, we show up for each other. In a moment of weakness, when Sully needs Mike most, Mike ends up actually being there, somehow having made it back from the harsh snowy human world they were wrongfully tossed out into. He tells Sully that it isn’t that he doesn’t care, but that he needed time to think. They’re both at fault. Their bond is strong but imperfect, and that’s OK.
And how does Boo—the little girl without whom we would not have a movie—fit in our story, you might be wondering? Maybe it’s proud of me to say, but for us, she feels like a certain part of me, something I feel I brought into my mother’s life when she had me: A fresh new innocence wrapped up in a willingness to play, love, explore and be free. It’s a beautiful thing, finding that connection in a child. In a way, we’re both mothering this part of me nowadays, my mom and I, just as Sully and Mike become surrogate parents to the young child.
At the end of the film, when things are finally right again, Sully deposits the sweet little girl back into her bedroom and shred her bedroom door, never to be used for scaring again—but also leaving Sully without a way to find her in the future. He keeps a shard of wood from her door as a reminder of his time with her, a talisman I’ve always found to be deeply tragic and special. It proves that the most valuable thing you can give to the people you love is that connection—and in my eyes, Sully gets to experience that again when Mike gifts him the reconstructed door in the film’s final minutes. The look of pure joy on his face when he sees an off-screen Boo is undeniable. In that moment, all of the swelling feelings a child brings to your life come back full force, the love and light of it all. He remembers why he never let himself forget her.
Maybe it’s all a bit too metaphorical, but the movie’s finale reminds me of the moments my mom and I get together now, the fleeting joy of reuniting and rediscovering that childlike magic. We don’t live under the same roof anymore. We live in different states. We have different day-to-day lives, and we haven’t shared worlds as completely as we used to, not in many years now. We’re used to it. But will we ever truly be used to it? Absence does make the heart grow fonder—Sully and his shard prove that—and it makes the moments you get with one another that much more special.
When my mom sees me again, like Sully seeing Boo, it brings that fresh innocence back to life, the nostalgic longing to start again from day one spilling over the brim of the moment—because time is fleeting, and can’t we just get some of it back? Maybe not, but we can make good with the time we have. And lately, in all of our Mike and Sully glory, my mom and I do just that.
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.