Monsters, also known as Hidden City, was the working title for what would eventually become Monsters, Inc. The film was first pitched by Pete Docter during a story session following the successful release of Toy Story. The film went through numerous iterations that radically altered the direction and flow of the story. The only main constant was that it involved monsters interacting with humans to a certain degree.
Monster drawing pitch
The first version of the film was intended to be a take on the idea of what our childhood fears were like and how do we deal with them as adults. Pete Docter had come up with the concept very early:
- “Well, my idea was that what it was about was [sic] about a 30 year old man who is like an accountant or something, he hates his job, and one day he gets a book with some drawings in it that he did when he was a kid from his mom, and he doesn't think anything of it and he puts it on the shelf and that night, monsters show up. And nobody else can see them. He thinks he's starting to go crazy, they follow him to his job, and on his dates, and all this- and it turns out these monsters are fears that he never dealt with as a kid. And each one of them represents a different kind of fear. As he conquers those fears, the guys who he slowly becomes kind of friends with- they disappear as he conquers those fears. It's this bittersweet kinda ending where they go away, and so not much of that stayed... it sounds better as a pitch than it did at the time- anyway.”
- ―Pete Docter
Monster TV pitch
The idea ultimately manifested into a tale about the monsters and why they scare kids to begin with:
- “One of our biggest challenges was to come up with a good reason as to why monsters scare kids. For awhile, we played with the idea that it was like a Broadway show and monsters entertained each other by scaring kids. That evolved into the whole business idea, which seemed pretty ripe for humor.”
- ―Pete Docter
In the city of Monstropolis, the greatest source of entertainment is a reality show where monsters go into children's bedrooms and scare them to the amusement of other monsters. Set in the 1940s-50s, the greatest entertainment monster is Barrymore who excitedly enters the human world to scare children to a live audience. One day, he enters and tries to scare a child named Raymond, but to his surprise, he is more fascinated with monsters and a flustered Barrymore runs away embarrassed.
A scrawny monster named Hob, who wants to break into the business, uses it as an opportunity and forces his boss J.L. (named after John Lasseter) to let him replace Barrymore. With no other option, J.L. relents, hands him the script and sends him into the room. Once again, Raymond shows no fear and Hob runs away scared. However, he realizes that he left his script behind and goes back once the show is off to get it back. Upon arriving, he sees that Raymond is reading the script and he is unimpressed. They end up befriending each other and Hob agrees to get advice from him to future scaring.
Hob becomes the best scarer when the ratings skyrocket and Barrymore is fired. He soon discovers his secret and exposes him. Hob manages to stand up for himself and defends Raymond, but is banished to the human world. In the end, Hob is hired to be a tooth fairy so that he can still visit Raymond.
This version was completely nixed when they decided that it was more practical to have it take place in an energy company rather than a television studio.
Johnson and Mary pitch
Pete Docter's follow up pitch began to inch closer to what would eventually become the final film.
In this new version, the protagonist was a monster named Johnson; a scarer who was not very good at his job. He idolizes Ned, another monster who is Scarer of the Month and wants to be like him. Johnson's boss gives him one last chance to prove his worth and he ends up getting a door belonging to a little girl named Mary who is always frightened by her older brothers. Johnson goes into the room, but the door knob breaks off and he tries to fix it. Mary, believing that her brothers are playing another joke on her, attacks Johnson who panics and accidentally brings her into the monster world. With no other choice, Johnson convinces Mary to remain in his apartment while he goes to work.
Mary, worried about getting caught, creates a monster disguise and goes after Johnson. Johnson discovers that Mary's door needs to be fixed so he has to wait. When Mary arrives, he is forced to tell people that she is her niece and visiting him at work. Mary finds Johnson's scares laughable and gives a shot herself. To his surprise, she is a very effective scarer and they make a team with Johnson getting all the credit. As he is lauded at work, Ned reveals his true colors and becomes envious of him.
While preparing for another scare, Johnson checks out the next room and realizes that it is Mary's room and that the door has been fixed. Not wanting to lose her, as well as his place at the company, he sends the door away and snatches a drawing that she had on the door to hide the evidence. Johnson and Mary continue to frighten children, until Mary comes across another little girl her age and becomes homesick. Johnson is made Scarer of the Month as Mary goes and sulks. As she wipes away her tears, Ned spots her and realizes what Johnson has done. Upon returning to his apartment, Mary finds her drawing and realizes that Johnson as been lying to her this whole time. She runs away as Johnson regrets his actions.
Johnson goes searching for Mary and finds evidence of where she might have gone while Ned goes to the Boss to inform him of what he has discovered. As Mary starts to become frightened of her surroundings, Johnson finds her and they race back to the company to get her home while avoiding the police. Johnson and Mary have a bittersweet goodbye just as the Boss, Ned and the police show up. Johnson sends Mary away on her door, but upon seeing him helplessly be dragged away, Mary unlatches her door as it falls and envelopes her and Johnson while shattering.
Back in the human world, Mary is no longer afraid of her older brothers as Johnson has become her personal closet monster to get back at them. Johnson and Mary continue to playfully scare each other and live on into old age together.
While the idea of a monster befriending a human remained the same throughout, there were stark changes made in each variation.
- Mary went back and forth to being a boy and a girl, and older and younger. At one point, she was Irish and another point she was African-American. She would have been roughly 8-years-old, but the story team felt that in order to make her defenseless and needing Sulley, she would have to be roughly 2-years-old. In the final film, she is simply called Boo
- Johnson went through several changes; having been a janitor, an engine room worker and a failed scarer. He was also at one point, more of a book smart character who was the son of Bigfoot, thus having a legacy to live up to. As they were designing the character, they could not figure out who he was and finally settled on making him the best scarer which suddenly put him in focus. Not wanting to make him look like "a guy in a suit", they gave him tentacles for legs, but realized that it was difficult to focus on his expression with such complicated appendages. His name changed to Mulley before becoming James P. "Sulley" Sullivan.
- Sulley would have spent the whole film with no one to interact with. To that end, the story team invented Mike Wazowski, based on a minor background character that was drawn in early production images. The team loved the idea of a one-eyed, armless sidekick and worked with it for a while. While initial animation tests were successful, the decided to give him arms for asymmetrical reasons. He and Sulley interchanged being Randall's assistant, to being separate scarers, before they became partners.
- Celia Mae was added as Mike's girlfriend and was a two headed woman with Gorgon like abilities. At some point this intensity was diminished and she was made an employee at Monsters, Inc.
- The character of Ned morphed into Randall Boggs who become less of a top tier monster and more of a second banana to Sulley. Earlier drafts had him dress in nice suits and act as a kiss up to Waternoose.
- At one point, Monsters, Inc. had a rival company called FearCo. that specialized in monsters that came out from under the bed. While rival companies are briefly mentioned, they do not play a significant role in the film. The company is finally mentioned in Monsters at Work.
- "The Original Pitch for 'Monsters, Inc.'". Cinematical (November 13, 2009).
- "Monsters, Inc. : Production Notes". cinema.
- "Monsters Inc. Original plot". The Dream of Pixar (March 11, 2011).
- "Monsters Inc: Pete Docter dives deep into movie's legacy and creation, 15 years later". Entertainment Weekly (November 2, 2016).