When "Toy Story" came out in 1995, it was a truly breathtaking achievement, a film that combined state-of-the-art animation with great writing, and appealed to kids and adults in equal measure. Many wondered if its creator, Pixar Animation Studios (working under the Disney aegis), had enough creativity to live up to its initial promise. The success of "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2" put those fears to rest in a hurry.
It was natural, then, that Pixar's latest effort, "Monsters, Inc.," would be met with great anticipation. Animation technology has advanced considerably in just the last few years, and some of the same people responsible for the studio's other hits were involved in this production. So could Pixar come up with yet another clever classic?
Does Buzz Lightyear wear a spacesuit?
"Monsters, Inc." is, quite simply, one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Granted, that's not saying much, given the quality of most 2001 offerings, but there's no need to grade on a curve here. From the overall plot to the tiniest visual detail, this is the kind of picture that rises to the top regardless of the competition.
The story takes place in Monstropolis, where furry giant James "Sulley" Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) is the "Scare Leader" at Monsters, Inc. His job is to pop out of children's closets and capture their screams, which provide the power for the entire city. Alas, children just aren't that easy to scare anymore, and the company is being plagued by rolling blackouts and missed production quotas. This puts Sulley and his best friend/coach, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), in fierce competition with Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), a nasty little reptile with a truly evil streak.
That villain becomes apparent when a cute little girl, nicknamed Boo (Mary Gibbs), gets loose in Monstropolis, much to the horror of Mike and Sulley, who are absolutely terrified of the tyke. Like all monsters, they think human children are deadly, and turn into shrieking idiots whenever they come into physical contact with one. That doesn't last long, though, as Sulley takes a liking to the kid, who affectionately calls him "Kitty." When Randall's plans start to involve her, Sulley and Mike go all-out to protect their tiny new friend.
It's no surprise that "Monsters, Inc." looks great, especially since setting it in a monster-populated city means the animators get to let their imaginations run wild. Sulley is a massive, horned teddy bear; Mike is an egg-shaped cyclops with a toothy grin; Randall is a slithering chameleon who literally disappears into the scenery;
Mike's girlfriend, Celia (Jennifer Tilly), has smart-aleck snakes for hair. There are literally dozens of such colorful creatures on display, and it would take a sharp eye to catch all the little sight gags involving oddly shaped critters with multiple limbs and the like.
While this visual style will entertain all ages, Dan Gerson and Andrew Stanton's script contains plenty of jokes aimed over the heads of the little ones, including jabs at corporate America and some unintentionally timely humor about contamination scares. Unlike "Shrek," to which it will inevitably be compared, "Monsters, Inc." doesn't rely on bathroom humor and outdated pop culture references to elicit laughs. Instead, it does what "Shrek" did best - turn familiar ideas into something fresh - without going for the easy way out.
Lead director Peter Docter only lets the film slow down a few times, mostly when it gets hung up on Mike's boring romance with Celia or allows Crystal's shtick to take over a scene. The story's ultimate, and rather maudlin, resolution will be obvious to anyone older than 5, but it is genuinely sweet enough that only the biggest cynics in the audience will be bothered.
To top it all off, Pixar has included the short "For the Birds" at the beginning of the film. A 3-minute gem about a flock of small birds on a telephone wire and the bigger bird who tries to join them, it provides yet more proof of the studio's wit and inventiveness. As if any more were needed.
"Monsters, Inc." is rated G.