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FILM REVIEW: MONSTERS, INC.
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
The main characters of "Monsters, Inc." are fantasy beasts who frighten children and capture their screams to use as fuel in the monsters' homeland. And they're the good guys.
Given that Shrek was an ogre who disliked cuddly fairytale characters, we've obviously entered a new era for animated heroes, at least of the computer-generated kind. The "Toy Story" movies' Woody and Buzz Lightyear, after all, just wanted to make kids happy.
Nevertheless, James P. Sullivan (a.k.a. "Sulley") the big, furry blue monster who is Monsters, Inc.'s top-ranking kid-Scarer and his green sidekick, Mike Wazowski whose dominant features are a whopping big eyeball, a yappy mouth and spindly legs outcharm Shrek by a swamp's length. (That movie's rabid fans are free to disagree with this relative "Shrek" ogre.)
"Monsters, Inc.," the first Pixar Animation/Disney feature since the great "Toy Story 2," is every bit as sly-witted as "Shrek" but not nearly so self-conscious. The pop-culture references here are neither as numerous as in "Shrek" nor as central to the concept. If you don't get the humor of a restaurant being called Harryhausen's, no matter; you're probably too busy chuckling at the imaginatively conceived creatures to notice.
For instance, there's that slug monster who mops a floor while leaving a slime trail behind him. And how about Celia, the Monsters, Inc.'s receptionist and Mike's would-be girlfriend, whose braids are actually purple rattlesnakes that sigh with relief when she decides not to get a haircut.
The foreground and backgrounds are packed with such details; you can imagine the animators giddily trying to top one another as they create such creatures as a purple jelly-like guy who can't help slipping through a sidewalk vent, or various monsters defined by the variable number and placement of their eyes.
With the exception of Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi), a lizard-like monster eager to snatch Sullivan's crown, the Scarers generally are a genial bunch who do their duty matter-of-factly. They need the screams to avoid an energy crisis, and besides, getting scared by monsters lurking in closets is a kid's rite of passage.
In a typically eye-tickling display of cyber-set design, the Scarers work in two long rows inside a hangar-like factory, where the closet doors are lowered one by one into their workstations. Down comes a door, in goes the monster, "Eeeeee!" goes the child, out comes the monster with a newly filled tube, and up goes the door to be replaced by the next door on the assembly line.
The only danger to the monsters is that they can't be touched by the presumably toxic kiddies, and bringing back any of them or their belongings is a no-no, liable to set off a siren-wailing, duck-for-cover Contamination Alert. So when Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) finds that he has re-entered his monster world with an actual little girl clinging to him, he and Mike (Billy Crystal) figure they're doomed.
No surprise, Boo, the child, proves to be less virulent than feared, but that doesn't make her any less mischievous. Thus Sulley and Mike participate in an especially fantastic variation on the standard toddler-run-amok plot as they try to return Boo to her bedroom without being discovered, particularly by the ever-scheming Randall or the Monsters, Inc. boss Waternoose (James Coburn), who resembles a five-eyeballed, Jabba-the-Hut crossed with a crab.
Because "Monsters, Inc." is a computer-animated film, you're bound to hear the de rigueur claims of how the replication of hairs and other technical feats are more impressive than ever. Maybe they are but who cares?
The characters in the computer-animated "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"" looked more lifelike and were more lifeless. "Monsters, Inc." takes place in a specifically unreal world and needn't pretend otherwise.
Even the kids are more stylized than realistic, as they have been in all of the Pixar films. With her Disney-issue saucer-plate eyes and a jagged mop of dark hair, Boo is cute in an awkward, asymmetrical way, which is preferable to the generic human cuddle bunnies who populate many cartoons.
The reason the animation here is impressive has nothing to do with megapixels and everything to do with expressiveness and personality, in the characters as well as the backgrounds. The affable Goodman and wisecracking Crystal contribute greatly to Sulley's and Mike's appeal, but pay attention to how many emotions Mike is able to convey with just an eyebrow, an eye and a mouth.
"Monsters, Inc." is the first Pixar feature not directed by John Lasseter; Pixar animator Pete Docter makes his debut here, and it's a triumphant one. The movie is not quite as riotous as "Toy Story 2" and doesn't pack the same emotional punch, but it's within striking distance. The climax, featuring what's essentially a suspended roller coaster of closet doors, is as thrilling as it is imaginative, and there's a particularly potent moment when Sulley sees his maximum scariness from a kid's point of view.
Otherwise, Docter and writers Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson try not to tug the heartstrings too hard. Some viewers may wish the movie played up the ending's payoffs more than it does, but then few films, animated or otherwise, fade out on as nice of a grace note as "Monsters, Inc." does.
Unlike "Shrek," which seemed to be trying to appeal to everybody without providing a consistent tone or message for anybody, "Monsters, Inc." is a G-rated family movie that knows its audience of the young and the young at heart. And it offers a lesson that seems particularly apt these days: Scaring kids may be inevitable, but making them laugh is a lot more satisfying.
Directed by Pete Docter; written by Andrew Stanton, Daniel Gerson; edited by Jim Stewart; production designed by Harley Jessup, Bob Pauley; music by Randy Newman; produced by Darla K. Anderson. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday, Nov. 2. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: G.
Sullivan John Goodman
Mike Billy Crystal
Boo Mary Gibbs
Randall Steve Buscemi
Waternoose James Coburn
Celia Jennifer Tilly
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