Mildly amusing and visually up to Pixar’s usual high standards in computer animation, “Monsters, Inc.” streaks to the height of its trajectory right out of the box and gradually loses altitude the rest of the way. Pivoting on the novel idea of monsters as genial working stiffs who scare kids just for a living, pic is clever and jokey in a vaudeville sort of way, but lacks the heart and sheer imagination of the company’s best work for Disney, “Toy Story 2” and “A Bug’s Life.” Accordingly, this bright bauble looks to scare up brawny, if not monster, B.O. with family audiences through the holiday season — and as far as the eye can see in home venue afterlife.
Not measuring up to Pixar’s usual level, artistically or financially, is no disgrace; the outfit’s three previous features have grossed a combined $1.2 billion worldwide, and the Bay Area operation has quickly built up a reputation for consistency in the kid pic realm perhaps equaled only by Disney himself in the 1940s and ’50s. Still, “Monsters” is noticeably more relentless, frantic and noisy than its predecessors, as well as less charming and captivating. Nor does it come close to rivaling “Shrek” as the standout animated picture of the year.
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Pacey item centers on the team of Sulley and Mike, the top “scarer” and “scare assistant” in Monstropolis, a town dedicated to and powered by the screams its professional monsters provoke from Earth’s young children. A towering, horned, purple-and-green-haired bear of a creature, Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) is the proverbial softie inside a hulking exterior, and he’s encouraged, prodded and provoked at every step by the literal ball of energy that is Mike (Billy Crystal), a lime on legs distinguished by one giant eye and a motor mouth.
Great fun is had laying out the basic contours of Monstropolis life: Beasts of every imaginable shape, size and configuration report daily to a giant factory to scare the bejesus out of kids everywhere, who are accessed via portable doors that magically provide direct entree to their bedrooms. Air tanks instantly capture the resultant screams, the energy source for the entire city.
Workaday banter, friendly joshing, office romances and professional rivalries are effortlessly laid out, with Sulley’s status as every child’s worst nightmare challenged only by Randall (Steve Buscemi), a purple, multi-armed lizard who covets the popular Sulley’s rank and enjoys the extra advantage of being able to turn invisible at will. Other colorful characters imprinted instantly and engagingly on the mind include Mike slinky, snake-haired receptionist girlfriend Celia (Jennifer Tilly), the crotchety office overseer Roz (Bob Peterson) and the old-school, crablike big boss Waternoose (James Coburn).
Dramatic gears are set in motion when a tiny girl named Boo (Mary Gibbs) slips through her door from the human world into Monstropolis. However fearsome they can be when called upon, monsters have a paralyzing fear of contact with homo sapiens, whom they’ve been taught are highly toxic if touched; an entire organization, the Child Detection Agency, staffed by emergency personnel in sealed yellow suits, exists for the sole reason of dealing with such intruders.
Knowing what will happen to Boo if she’s caught, and quickly suspecting that physical contact with her isn’t so dangerous after all, Sulley and Mike protect the pig-tailed kid, a pre-verbal imp whose utterances sound like those of a Teletubbie on speed and who is, unfortunately, not the most endearing tyke ever put onscreen. In fact, she’s pretty obnoxious, which doesn’t help during the film’s longish midsection that’s mostly devoted to the monster team’s frantic efforts to hide Boo from everyone else. Much of the film, then, becomes a cat-and-mouse chase, with distractions offered by the smoothly malicious plottings of Randall and an amusing digression when the duo is momentarily banished to the Himalayas, where they are enthusiastically welcomed by a boisterous Abominable Snowman (John Ratzenberger).
But as the chasing about continues, it becomes increasingly apparent how insufficiently the premise has been developed; the excellent basic ideas have yielded too few twists and dramatic junctures to keep the picture flying at the level at which it starts. The climactic roller-coaster ride pursuit — on tracks in the giant warehouse where the portals are kept — provides some sensory thrills, but the poignant note on which the story ends forcibly reminds the audience of the genuine emotional chords the film has previously failed to strike.
Pixar’s vast army of design personnel has hardly been asleep at the wheel, as the monsters and settings overflow with imagination and wit. Even when the narrative becomes a bit tedious, there are visual and verbal references to keep adult auds amused; little kids may be scared at times, but in a reasonable, unthreatening way. In ways that viewers may now begin to be taking for granted, the computer animation here is still incredibly impressive.
Vocal performances are all ultra-energetic and highly effective. Goodman and Crystal bring what they are best known for — comic weight and effervescent standup patter, respectively — to their characterizations. Buscemi, Coburn, Tilly, Peterson and Ratzenberger also shine with highly distinctive readings that make their important roles pop.
As “Monsters, Inc.” and the first “Harry Potter” feature will be in release simultaneously on thousands of screens in the weeks to come, it’s of some interest to note that both stories involve universes that exist in parallel to the earthly human one, populated by creatures known to humans but unsuspected of being so systematized in their perceptibly threatening activities. What more can be made of this in the current context by cultural commentators will be seen once “Harry” is unveiled.
“Monsters” is preceded on prints by a jolly three-minute Pixar trifle, “For the Birds.”