February 2017 marked the 15th anniversary of the UK cinema release of Monsters, Inc., the fourth high- profile collaboration between Disney and Pixar, following A Bug’s Life and the first two Toy Story films. The film’s whistleblowing protagonists, Sulley and Mike, foil a plot at the highest echelons of their employer, Monsters Incorporated, an energy company which converts screams into power. The boss, a patriarchal polypod named Mr Waternoose, has been experimenting with unauthorised technology to extract screams from children to help the ailing company and avert an energy crisis. ‘I’ll kidnap a thousand children before I let this company die!’ he proclaims.
As an in-house lawyer, I appreciate the film as a riff on corporate culture, with Sulley taking his place in a distinguished line of fictional characters who struggle to balance their work personas with their personal lives (including Darrin Stephens from Bewitched and George Banks from Mary Poppins). Corporate culture plays a key role in a company’s good governance, an area which increasingly falls within the remit of in-house legal teams.
Legal counsel are concerned with whether employees, from the boardroom to the shop floor, feel they can raise concerns about ethical issues. Do they feel the directors will take their concerns seriously? And are they sufficiently confident to look at business practices in the cold light of day, away from the ‘group-think’ of a company.
At the start of the film, Sulley and Mike seem happy to blur the lines between the personal and the professional. They star in a company TV commercial, tagline: ‘We’re Monsters Incorporated!’ The local grocer throws them freebies to spur them on to break the ‘all-time scare record’ at work. And Sulley’s professional prowess is so well-known around town that he can secure a coveted reservation at exclusive sushi restaurant, Harryhausen’s.
The employees’ self-identification with their employer is so strong that it is remarkable that Mike and Sulley blow the whistle at all. Indeed, it is a particular struggle for Sulley.
‘What was I thinking?’ asks Sulley. ‘This could destroy the company!’
‘Forget the company,’ retorts Mike. ‘What about us?’
Monsters, Inc. may be a tale of innocence lost, but the film itself is from more innocent times. This was pre-crash, pre-LIBOR, before the VW emissions scandal, BHS and Philip Green. Of course corporate fraud stretches far back into history. But I cannot help thinking that today’s audience will find a denouement in which the corruption is revealed to go ‘all the way to the top’ a little less surprising than in days gone by. And we may find it just that bit harder to suspend our disbelief for the conclusion of Disney’s corporate fairy tale: that the very worker who blew the whistle rises up to take control of the company.
Yet for in-house lawyers, the denouement of Monsters, Inc. should not instil a sense of dejected resignation, but rather a sense of purpose and urgency in their work. Sulley and Mike not only thwart the evil plot, but along the way discover that children’s laughter is a viable fuel source, proving an effective solution to the energy crisis. It is a striking parable on how focusing on wider issues of ethical governance rather than solely on revenue generation can ultimately reap enormous rewards. Corporate governance sits at the centre of the film’s plot, but at its heart sits an entrepreneurial – and ethical – spirit.
Harry Perrin is an in-house solicitor in the media sector...