directed by Pete Doctor with John Goodman, Billy Crystal, James Coburn, and Steve Buscemi opens Nov. 2 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, others
THIS YEAR'S OSCAR for blue-colored monster hair—and the AMPAS is badly in need of new categories along such lines—is a shoo-in. Those CGI wizards at Pixar, creators of the wonderful Toy Story movies, have topped themselves with the mane on hulking, affable James, a kind of collision between cow, ape, and paint box. (He's got violet splotches on his hide like a genetically altered Holstein.) When the lovable beast collapses face down in the snow during an improbable late-film Himalayan sleigh ride, the wind ruffles his hair with such verisimilitude that he and his brief despair seem, well, real. The technological leap from the creepy dog fur in Toy Story 2 is remarkable.
It's a pity that Monsters, Inc. doesn't take more breathers during its brisk, child-friendly 84-minute running time to celebrate its own craft. Instead, the reliably funny G-rated movie arrives as a predictable, well-designed, and satisfying entertainment product that's less ornery than Shrek and less imaginative or funny than its Toy Story cousins.
As with all animated features aimed at parents and kids, Monsters works on two levels. For tykes, the notion that their dark, scary bedroom closet doors are portals to a monster-filled world is an entirely plausible conceit. Through these Alice in Wonderland-like passages, James and his blue-collar co-workers burst in to elicit and capture the frightened screams necessary to power their own alternate universe of Monstropolis. (The place is experiencing an energy crisis, natch.) Kids will also appreciate the fact that said monsters are actually terrified of tots, reversing the usual power structure of childhood.
For parents, the daily scream quota required of James (voiced by John Goodman) and his one-eyed assistant, Mike (Billy Crystal), should echo their own harried workplaces. James and his colleagues have their daily production numbers tallied each day at the Monsters, Inc. factory—talk about pressure!--where crablike owner James Coburn worries his concern is failing. (In a subplot, backstabbing evil chameleon Steve Buscemi threatens to unseat James as MI's top producer.)
THE ASSEMBLY LINE is thrown out of whack when a toddler dubbed Boo stumbles through a portal and into the plant. Initially terrified, James takes her home to the bachelor pad he shares with Mike (Boo Has Two Daddies, anyone?), where they make like Three Men and a Baby—absent Steve Guttenberg, mercifully. Plenty of physical comedy ensues, most of it from the situational humor of reluctant parents tending the child-as-agent-of-chaos. Crystal tones down his usually annoying schtick somewhat; his kvetching character remains superfluous compared to James, a laconic monster of action.
Boo calls James "Kitty," one of two words in her lexicon, and no one will be surprised if the two ultimately bond. (Meanwhile, Mike courts a medusa- headed secretary voiced by Jennifer Tilly; she wears a skirt, while male monsters remain curiously pants-free.)
Like E.T., Boo must eventually go home (since all bedtime stories require reunited families), lending Monsters just enough poignancy for the fairy-tale aspirations of its co-producer, Disney. In a way, the film is about the inevitability of parting, of kids growing up and leaving the nest.
Mainly, however, Monsters succeeds in depicting an enjoyable alternate world indebted to Gary Larson, Matt Groening, and '50s-'60s Blue Note album designer Reid Miles (particularly in the credits and jazzy soundtrack). Extra eyes, limbs, and teeth seem to be the hallmarks of monsterdom, although James and Mike also boast vestigial horns. (Mike does most of his emoting with a single monobrow.)
Both our heroes are, to some extent, oppressed members of the proletariat, and Monsters gives their world a certain Orwellian police-state-meets-rust-belt aesthetic (not that kids will care). Its hidebound late-capitalist regime is badly in need of reinvention, just as our old-school 'toon industry was revolutionized by Pixar (led by Apple co-founder/rescuer Steve Jobs). Even if Monsters lacks that kind of "think different" genius, it's innovative enough to guarantee a long shelf life before version 2.0 comes along.