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Wednesday, March 6, 2002

Where the wild things are digitized

Monsters, Inc.

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Peter Docter
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: English with Japanese subtitles; or dubbed in Japanese
Now showing

The best, and funniest, animation has always started with a desire to take the established order of things and turn it on its head. (And then, usually, dropping an anvil on it.) Computer-animation studio par excellence Pixar continues in this tradition with its fourth film, "Monsters, Inc.," which seeks to build on its run of successes with "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life."

News photo
Boo and Sully (voiced by John Goodman) in "Monsters, Inc."

The premise? A simple one: What if the monsters and assorted bogeymen children always imagine to be lurking in their closets at night were real, and what if they were just as scared of little kids?

Borrowing an idea from C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, "Monsters, Inc." imagines the closet door as a portal to another world. In this case, Monstropolis, a world very much like our own except that its denizens are giant walking eyeballs, snake-haired Cyclopses and spiky, slithering blobs -- kind of like Shibuya, without the cell phones. It's not half as scary, though, since the monsters are mostly a bunch of softies, who'd actually rather not scare people.

But here's the rub: The energy that powers Monstropolis is extracted from children's screams. So the entire monster universe depends on the cadre of efficient frighteners at Monsters, Inc. -- corporate logo, "We scare, because we care" -- who slip through their doorway portals every day, frightening kids and bottling their screams.

Of course, nothing from the human world is supposed to come back through those doors. The monsters are convinced that human contact is toxic, so even a stray sock that slips through, stuck in the fur of one monster, leads to a full-scale alert, with masked decontamination crews sealing off the area. (A slightly eerie joke, in light of the recent anthrax scares.)

So all hell breaks loose when top scarer Sully, a bearish, blue-furred hulk voiced by John Goodman, emerges from a door with a little baby girl in tow. Sully enlists the aid of his friend Mike (Billy Crystal), a giant eyeball with an even bigger mouth, and together the two try to keep Boo -- as they call the little girl -- under wraps until they can figure out a way to get her back to her world unnoticed.

Director Pete Docter -- replacing Pixar's usual main man, John Lasseter -- manages to milk the role-reversal situation for a lot of laughs. Boo sees Sully as nothing more than an oversize cuddly toy, and she's constantly trying to hug him, while he shrinks in trembling horror. Multiply that situation by 50 when Boo pops out of a bag at a sushi bar full of monsters, in a scene that's pure Pixar: a series of plastic reactions as the place erupts in a flawlessly rendered explosion of scurrying, scampering and slithering.

Overall, computer-generated animation is now so highly developed, there's no point anymore in discussing what it can or can't do. As "Monsters, Inc." proves, it can do anything. Many reviewers have commented on the mind-boggling detail on Sully's fur as each hair ripples in a snowstorm, but really, who's looking that closely? The best bits in animation are those that move beyond realism, not ape it.

My favorite bit of showoffy technique came in a throwaway joke when a gelatinous sluglike kinda thing is moving down the street, so immersed in his morning paper that he doesn't notice the sidewalk grate up ahead. Sshhooop! Down he goes, with his paper and hat left fluttering on top of the grate.

But while Pixar's technique is always impeccable, it has been its attention to story and solid, character-driver humor (and, lest we forget, songs that don't totally suck) that has let its films trump any recent Disney or Dreamworks animation. It's also what has won them as many adult fans as children. Great lines and sardonic voicings, not computers, are ultimately what made "Toy Story's" Cowboy Woody and Buzz Lightyear seem so engaging -- and more "human" than many of todays flesh-'n'-blood stars. (Ben Affleck, j'accuse!)

Unusually, with "Monsters, Inc," Pixar comes up a bit short in the charisma department. Goodman's all right as Sully, though the single-guy-saddled-with-a-baby shtick could have come from any of a dozen B-grade comedies. Billy Crystal was a big mistake, though. This is a guy who all too often mistakes verbal diarrhea for humor, and this script lets him indulge in a big way. Crystal has at least triple the amount of lines as any other character, of which maybe two are actually funny. Ditto for Randall, Sully & Mike's archenemy at the scare factory. The idea of Steve Buscemi voicing a sinister, blue lizard should be inherently funny, but the script never gives him a line to sink his teeth into.

These weaknesses are just about compensated for by some great sight gags and an amazingly well-done chase scene through the factory's cavernous storage vault, which involves a massively complex automated system for delivering and filing doors. But brilliant special effects carrying shallow characterizations (and, let's be honest, content designed for spinoff merchandising) mirrors 90 percent of Hollywood's output today. It's also a far cry from the higher standard Pixar has championed so far. Here's hoping it comes back strong with the next one.

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