Monsters, Inc.

on November 02, 2001 by Wade Major
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   To all who thought the PDI/Dreamworks vs. Pixar/Disney rivalry was hot around the time of "Antz" and "A Bug's Life," be warned that phase two is already underway. With PDI/DreamWorks' "Shrek" having only recently seized the computer animation box-office crown from Pixar/Disney's "Toy Story" franchise, all eyes are now on Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." to see whether the former champ can respond to the challenge. That there are, once again, even superficial similarities with "Shrek" merely makes the whole soap opera even more exciting.

   The two sides argue, of course, that they essentially target different audiences--PDI/DreamWorks going for those who prefer PG-rated fare and Pixar/Disney content to rely on the G-rated crowd. Even so, it's hard to imagine the people at Pixar not eagerly licking their chops to get "Monsters, Inc." into the marketplace, for any comparisons are sure to fall firmly in the favor of Pixar and Disney.

   Much like "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." is a buddy story centering on a large monster with a comic sidekick who discovers that being mean and scary isn't nearly as rewarding as tapping into one's kinder, gentler side. But whereas "Shrek" was designed as a fairytale satire, drawing from popular source material, "Monsters, Inc." is richly original--a story that blends humor, pathos and action into a backdrop as creative as any classic fairytale. In a parallel world populated and run by all manner of icky, squishy, hairy, ugly monsters, a corporation named Monsters, Inc. is charged with supplying the bulk of society's energy--scream energy, to be exact, captured in canisters by specially-trained "Scarers" whose job it is to pass through an assembly line of closet door portals, spook unsuspecting children as they sleep at night, and repeat the task. It's all very sanitized with the top scarers--a lovably hairy oaf named Sulley (John Goodman) and a sleazy reptile with powers of invisibility named Boggs (Buscemi)--actively competing for the all-time ecord. That Sulley is both nice and popular, and a virtual hero to his talkative giant eyeball of a buddy, Wazowski (Billy Crystal), just makes Boggs even more determined to take the record...by any means necessary.

   Boggs' attempts to pad his numbers by cheating a few scares in the middle of the night, however, go dangerously awry, allowing a little girl to cross the portal and enter the monster world. Naturally, she falls in with Sulley and Wazowski who, amusingly, don't scare her in the least. The energetic little Boo (Mary Gibbs), as Sulley names her, proves nearly impossible to control or keep track of, giving the duo one headache after another as they scramble keep the human "contamination" hidden long enough to return her to her world. Naturally, things get much, much worse before get better.

   Like the "Toy Story" films, "Monsters, Inc." is first and foremost a sensational piece of writing--as imaginative and narratively sound as anything in the live-action world, if not more. Its twists and turns are as unpredictable as they are delightful, and the quality of the animation simply staggering--yet another quantum leap even beyond "Toy Story 2," with textured hair and fur so lifelike that it sometimes appears to verge on three-dimensionality. It's further confirmation that despite "Shrek's" box-office success, Pixar still claims a stratospheric edge in animation technology.

   Of course, none of that will matter to the teens and young adults who responded so strongly to the more risqué aspects of the irreverent "Shrek." "Monsters, Inc.," by contrast, is unabashedly family-friendly, tapping optimism rather than cynicism and going straight for the heartstrings.

   It's also worth noting that "Monsters, Inc." marks the directing debut of longtime Pixar animator Pete Docter, who takes over for John Lasseter, the director of all three previous Pixar movies. Docter is every bit Lasseter's equal, realizing a brisk, complete and emotionally satisfying film comfortably jammed into the obligatory 90-minute window.

   Whether or not "Monsters, Inc." winds up trumping "Shrek" at the box office isn't likely to matter all that much in the overall scheme of things. Both films will have proven monumental successes for their respective makers, further validating computer animation as a legitimate art form and justifying even greater attention in the future. And that bodes well for filmmakers and audiences alike. Voiced by John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger and Frank Oz. Directed by Pete Docter. Written by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson. Produced by Darla K. Anderson. A Buena Vista release. Family/Animated. Rated G. Running time: 91 min

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