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Monsters, Inc.   B+

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Pete Doctor
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Daniel Gerson
Cast: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Mary Gibbs, Frank Oz, Bonnie Hunt.

Review by Rob Vaux

Monsters, Inc. starts, as most of Pixar's animated features do, with a wonderful conceit. The boogymen who terrorize children in the middle of the night are actually a bunch of good-hearted working Joes who collect fear to power their monster city. They work for a big factory called Monsters, Inc., where disembodied closet doors slide into place and grant them access to the bedrooms of millions of kindergarteners worldwide. The more they scare, the more energy they can collect, and the more their city thrives. Oh yeah, and they're also terrified of the children on the other side of the doors. Scared. To. Death. As the company's chitinous president (James Coburn) explains, one touch from a human child could be lethal.

With a premise like that, it doesn't take much to spin an entertaining fable, and the Pixar folk have a lot more talent than most. Using their standard cutting edge computer animation, they present the delightful story of what happens at Monsters, Inc. when a little girl called Boo toddles through the closet door and enters their heretofore unseen world. Boo is voiced by Mary Gibbs, and has an almost perfect sense of preschool cuteness. She's not quite articulate enough to make herself clear, but her semi-coherent noises and marvelous facial expressions generate just the right amount of appeal. As she tumbles through the city of Monstropolis, totally unaware of the havoc she's causing, she endears herself to us almost before we're aware of it.

And that's the human character. The monsters are infinitely more diverse and just as charming. Her protectors (otherwise known as Our Stalwart Heroes) are Monsters, Inc.'s number one scare team, the shaggy blue Sully (John Goodman) and his edgy green sidekick Mike (Billy Crystal). Initially terrified, they soon become attached to the little tyke, and learn to their surprise that she's not poisonous after all. It's small comfort, however. Not only is the local monster HazMat team hunting her down, but Sully's skink-like rival Randall (wonderfully interpreted by Steve Buscemi) has some nasty plans for the lot of them.

The challenge of bringing this world to life has become commonplace in the animation industry. The recent explosion in the art form constantly demands new updates, and resting on your laurels is a good way to get crushed. Pixar has led the charge for quite awhile, and while Monsters, Inc. never improves upon the formula, it delivers solid entertainment with polish and verve. Like the other Pixar films (and DreamWorks' Shrek, to name just one), Monsters, Inc. creates a world so utterly believable that you forget you're watching a computer-generated environment. Within this space, the animators and director Pete Doctor are free to create whatever they wish. Luckily, they understand that character and story are equally as important as technological wizardry. The combination creates a passively astounding canvas to tell a clever and consistently amusing story.

The script crackles with intelligence and the voice actors all enjoy themselves tremendously. Doctor juxtaposes the light dialogue with some terrific set pieces, including an astounding chase through the factory's huge warehouse of doors (you can smell the Disneyland ride in the making, but no matter). All of it feels smooth and integrated, and at a tight 86 minutes, there's little time to grow bored. Naturally, they throw in the usual gamut of adult jokes, too (Mike goes on a date to a sushi bar called Harryhausen's, and speaks cryptically of Monstropolis "exiles" like the Abominable Snowman). At this stage, such developments are par for the course, but Monsters, Inc. is as clever and creative with its material as anyone.

If the film has a failing, it's that it can't quite match the extraordinary feats of the earlier Toy Story films. A few weak points appear in the plot (are children really toxic or not?), and the ending labors a bit to keep up with the rest of the film. But the only reason they stand out is because we're so used to Pixar knocking the ball out of the park. It's a high standard, and even with the flaws, Monsters, Inc. stands in very good company. There's a lot of animated films out there that deliver the same sort of material; as long as they do it as well as this one, I can't see a downside to a whole lot more.

Review published 11.05.2001.

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