John Ratzenberger’s cultural footprint is humongous, considering that he’s a generally unassuming performer who tends toward ensemble work. For 11 years he played beer-swilling know-it-all Cliff Clavin on Cheers, a character that eventually crossed over into half a dozen other primetime series. Boston’s chattiest postal worker hasn’t uttered a little known fact since his 2002 guest shot on Frasier, but by that point, Ratzenberger was already started on a second extended run: as Pixar Animation Studios’ good-luck charm, in an unbroken streak of 23 features stretching from the first Toy Story all the way through the yet-unreleased Soul. All that, and the guy turned up in a Star War, too!
Moviegoers lining up for Monsters, Inc. in November of 2001 might have expected to hear Ratzenberger’s voice, but it wasn’t a given. It only made sense that he’d reprise Hamm the piggy bank in Toy Story 2; and his portrayal of smallest showman P.T. Flea in A Bug’s Life came off more as a nod to creative continuity between Pixar’s first two features. It’s his cameo as Monsters, Inc.’s Abominable Snowman that establishes a pattern, firming up some essential components of the Pixar and Monsters mythologies while being played for maximum surprise. Welcome, not only to the Himalayas, but to the next 20-plus years of John Ratzenberger’s onscreen life.
Like the toy and bug movies before it, Monsters, Inc. depicts a society that mirrors modern human civilization in amusing and illuminating ways, one whose spoken and unspoken rules are rooted in stories we tell ourselves and stray thoughts we’d never think to share with anyone else. Kids in the movie truly are terrorized by fiendish beasties who pop out of their closets at night—but for most of the folks who work the scare floor, it’s just a job. James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) might have horns, claws, and great big nasty teeth, but like similar characters who live on Sesame Street or followed Kermit The Frog to Hollywood, Sulley is a big softy inside. (Monsters, Inc. would be the most Muppetational Pixar feature even if Frank Oz weren’t in the cast.) The monsters are scared of the kids as much as the kids are scared of the monsters, making exile to the human world the ultimate threat.
“Just think of a few names, will you?” high-strung cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) says as he and Sulley are on the verge of bringing a stray human child into their workplace. “Loch Ness, Bigfoot, The Abominable Snowman. They all got one thing in common, pal: banishment!” Our cryptids are Monstropolis’ castaways—world-building and foreshadowing that’s as ingeniously layered as the countless hairs of Sulley’s revolutionarily detailed pelt, which goes blowing every which way once he and his partner are inevitably shoved through a one-way door into the middle of a blizzard.
The Snowman’s no slouch in that department either: Emerging from the whiteout, the grinning pile of cotton balls’ fur reacts to the weather conditions in equally impressive fashion. But what’s more important is his recognizable bellowing. It’s a multilevel callback, and Ratzenberger makes the character’s short screen time count in a performance of desperate hospitality. Starved for company miles above sea level, he rustles up snacks and rattles off the types of kids who live in the village below (“tough kids, sissy kids, kids who climb on rocks”), only dropping his optimistic façade while recounting Bigfoot’s uncomfortable reign as “King Itchy.”
So, not the ideal host, but the properly reassuring presence at the end of Monsters, Inc.’s most distressing passage. And that’s the role Ratzenberger has continued to play for Pixar ever since, whether it’s in the form of a subterranean supervillain, an entire school of fish, or the big rig who carries all the other cars from Cars inside… his… body? Pixar’s success is built on finding variety within formula, and Ratzenberger is a reliable part of both the variety and the formula. The movies are the snow cones, and he’s the lemon flavoring, and The Abominable Snowman brought them together on a permanent basis.