Think of these `Monsters' as great eye candy

Review: Visual effects, inventive twists and interlocking relationships make this Pixar film appeal to all ages.

November 02, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

After Toy Story and Toy Story 2, the computer-animation wizards at Pixar have come up with a story that is a toy - a whirligig called Monsters, Inc. Like those big old push-down tops that emanate sparks as they careen around the floor, this movie has more overt oomph than the buddy-movie parodies of the Toy Story films or the neo-Aesop fable of A Bug's Life.

It's a different, not a lesser, cartoon feature, with its own sporty brand of humor and legerdemain. The opening credits have a late-'50s Saul Bass-y bounce (think North by Northwest) and, visually and aurally, Monsters, Inc. has the jazzy lilt of that atypical Disney classic from 1961, 101 Dalmatians. Series of inventive twists earn our affection and respect because they're indelible pieces of an extravagant contraption.

The marvelous Monstropolis is a city inhabited wholly by monsters of all kinds. Its happy, energy-guzzling glut of cars and creatures resembles American fantasy cities of 50 years ago with one big difference - wear and tear shows on the brownstones, and the beasts are suffering through the same energy crises humans are enduring right now, including rolling blackouts. The dominant family-owned energy corporation, Monsters, Inc., under the stewardship of a crab-lobster hybrid, Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), is having trouble meeting energy demands. Monstropolis runs on the "scare energy" produced by children's screams - and children are both scarcer and harder to frighten than they were during the baby boom.

This crisis puts extra pressure on the "scarers," like the all-time champ, a horned and big-toothed bear called Sulley (John Goodman), and his chief rival, Randall (Steve Buscemi), who's like a basilisk crossed with a chameleon. With the help of hard-hatted assistants, including Sulley's right-claw man, a mini-Cyclops named Mike (Billy Crystal), scarers must enter a kid's bedroom through the closet door, elicit as intense a scream as they can to fill their "scare canisters," and make their exit without the kid laying a hand on them.

A child's touch is lethal to monsters - or so the monsters have been told. The inadvertent intrusion of something as small and innocuous as a baby's sock will shut down an entire floor of Monsters, Inc. and trigger an onslaught of yellow-suited de-contaminators from the CDA (Child Detection Agency).

Randall, trying to use illegal overtime to top Sulley's score, leaves a closet door in play after-hours and allows a 2-year-old girl named Boo (Mary Gibbs) to jump from her bedroom into Monstropolis. She ends up hiding out in Mike and Sulley's bachelor pad while the CDA launches a full-scale investigation of the greater Monstropolis area and Monsters, Inc. in particular.

In this picture's bountiful cleverness, there isn't one sweeping fairy-tale story but a set of relationships and subplots: Sulley and Randall's rivalry, Sulley's growing love for Boo and the strain it puts on his friendship with Mike, the ruthless tactics Waternoose will use to keep his scare factory afloat, and the relative power of laughter and screaming. Director Peter Docter and his crew put them together in a series of breezy, interlocking riffs.

Sulley may be a big lug, not a "little fellow," but as the corporation makes him jump through hoops, it's reminiscent of Chaplin's Modern Times. And the concept of closet doors opening up into another world is like cartoon Cocteau - especially when the gag broadens to reveal millions of these doors from kids' bedrooms all around the world, lined up on moving hangers.

Pixar films are pleasurable for adults partly because of slapstick word-play like the "Stalk"/"Don't Stalk" signs in Monstropolis, and partly for their intricate playfulness. For instance, the CDA cops clean up crime scenes and vaporize contaminated areas with an arsenal and m.o. that's more efficient than any human hazard-management unit. But it's pleasurable mostly because the filmmakers hold to a spartan, 90-minute running time while introducing such questions as: When does a monster become so loving he becomes a playmate?

These films are lovable for kids of all ages because they're so rooted in character - indeed, the details of Sulley in Monsters, Inc. are so lifelike and involved, it's tempting to wonder if the effects would have been as uncanny if Docter and company had hired Planet of the Apes makeup whiz Rick Baker to come up with a super Sulley suit.

Sulley is the archetypal gentle giant, but Goodman helps make him a comfortably slobby single guy - the perfect candidate to become a bachelor father. And Crystal gives the sometimes too-pragmatic Mike a humorous self-effacement that's endearing; he loves being in a commercial or on a magazine cover, even when a logo or a price bar covers his head like a bull's-eye.

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