The computer animated features produced by the Pixar Animation Studios have been justly lauded for their stunning visuals, but Monsters, Inc. confirms that despite all the technical tools at their disposal, one thing counts head and shoulders above razzle-dazzle eye candy (or anything else, for that matter): the story and characters, and Monsters, Inc. introduces worthy additions to the Pixar pantheon.
It would be unfair to expect Monsters, Inc. to be in the league the studio's crowning jewels, the classic Toy Story and its superior sequel, Toy Story 2, and it indeed is not. Monsters, Inc. is simpler and overall more geared to the younger set that those films, but at its core lies a very clever idea that would be best appreciated by adults. The creepy creatures that emerge from children's closets at night are not some wild ghouls out for random scares; they're employees of the titular company, which collects kids' screams to power the monster mecca Monstropolis. There's a rather serious scream shortage as a whole but not on the tally of Sulley (voiced by John Goodman), who, with the coaching of wisecracking one-eyed best friend Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), has become the reigning king of scream collection. However, nipping at his heels is the slimy (in every sense) chameleon Randall (Steve Buscemi), whose scheme to rack up on-the-sly screams leads to the monsters' worst nightmare come true: a little girl (Mary Gibbs) crosses over from the human world to Monstropolis.
Sulley is the one who discovers the girl, and his initial reaction belies his tough reputation. Monsters believe that contact with objects such a child's sock--let alone a child itself--is poisonous, and Sulley reacts with according panic. But Sulley (rather predictably) comes to grow fond of the moppet, whom he eventually nicknames "Boo," and this focal creature-kid bonding angle is indicative of the younger-skewing approach to Monsters, Inc. This is not to say that the grown-ups won't also find themselves involved in the story. With her wide eyes and infectious laugh and smile, Boo is absolutely irresistible in a way flesh-and-blood child actors can only dream of being, and Sulley, despite his reputation, is quite the cuddly fellow.
Certainly adding to that cuddly quality is the ever-superlative work of the Pixar animators; the hair covering Sulley's body is so realistic you almost want to reach out and touch the screen. That's just one example of the film's attention to detail. There are some wonderful little visual touches, such as the reactions of the snakes that make up the hairs on the head of Celia (Jennifer Tilly), Mike's girlfriend. But, again, some smarter details lie in the writing, as in smart throwaway jokes like a briefly-glimpsed newspaper headline that informs of the possibility of rolling blackouts in Monstropolis.
In general, though, director Pete Docter and writers Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson keep the broader audience in mind, and that works just as well. Audiences of all ages will be dazzled and excited by the bravura action climax--an extended chase through the closet doors that are the interdimensional portals bridging Earth and Monstropolis--which actually manages to outdo its counterparts in A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2. On the opposite end, young 'uns and grown-ups alike will be touched by the poignantly understated--surprisingly so--finale, yet again highlighting the Pixar people's strength in scripting and all facets of film direction. Monsters, Inc. likely won't be quite as durable over time as the Toy Story features, but that doesn't mean that it won't be a film that families will revisit in their living rooms many times over for many years to come.
RATING: **** 1/2 (out of *****)
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