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Monsters, Inc.

When my sister was little, she was like most kids. She was afraid of the dark, and she didn't like sleeping by herself. She was particularly afraid that a monster was going to jump out of the closet or from under the bed and "get" her. What finally got her past this childhood fear was a little picture book called There's a Nightmare in My Closet. Repeated readings from this wonderful tale of a friendly monster who does indeed live in a child's closet finally "cured" my sister. She might have still believed there were monsters in her room, but now they were there to protect her,
not hurt her.

Taking the same situation but imagining it from the monster's point of view is the new animated feature from Pixar, entitled Monsters, Inc. It's the story of two monsters, a little green cyclops named Mike Wazowski and a big, blue furry monster (somewhat reminiscent of the muppet Harry on Sesame Street) named Sully. Sully is the star worker at Monsters, Inc., the energy company in the land of monsters. Its power is generated from the screams of children, so Sully and his co-workers spend their working hours interrupting the sleeping hours of children by bursting through their closet doors and frightening them. Sully is so good at his job that he's about to break the Monsters, Inc. record for most screams.

Of course, back in Monster land, Sully is one of the nicest guys you could know. He covers for Mike when Mike forgets to do his paperwork, he clowns around with the other monsters, and sheepishly deflects the praise of everyone around him. Like Toy Story and A Bug's Life (previous Pixar creations) before it, Monsters, Inc. imagines the lives of creatures we usually don't consider and finds them strikingly similar to our own. In those movies, it was toys and bugs who went to work, fell in love, and worried about their future. Here it's monsters who live in apartments, buy nice cars, and battle it out with devious co-workers.

One of the great conceits of all of these movies is how our mundane lives are re-imagined in a parallel universe. In Monsters, Inc., child monsters jump rope but they use the tongue of one of their friends as the rope. The power company has an inane slogan: "We scare because we care." And monsters have their own primal fears. In their case, they're afraid of children--"there is nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child."

So it is truly a disaster when a little girl bounds through Sully's closet door one day. The recurring joke is that Mike and Sully are terrified of her, while she gleefully follows them around, even calling Sully by the affectionate "Kitty." How Mike and Sully get her back into her own world (while also learning a valuable lesson) forms the basis of the movie.

If you've seen Toy Story 2 or Shrek, then you know how far computer animation has come. While Monsters, Inc. doesn't break any new ground in that area, its creation of a monster world is nonetheless enthralling. Using a wonderful rainbow of colors, the film's animators present a candy-store world of visual jokes and striking character and set design.

Giving voice to the monsters are two recognizable actors, Billy Crystal (Mike) and John Goodman (Sully). Crystal was clearly encouraged to let loose with his usual shtick, with Goodman being the forgiving straight man. James Coburn contributes as the Monster Inc.'s president, and Steve Buscemi is the evil co-worker trying to use children for his own designs. My favorite voice, though, might be Mary Gibbs as the little girl. Her combination of baby talk and squeals and laughs is captivating.

The first half of Monsters, Inc. is one of the funnier comedies of the year. The interaction of the characters, the clever in-jokes (a restaurant is named Harry Hausens, a wonderful reference to the great stop-motion animator), and references to other movies will satisfy the grown-ups, while the clever story and brightly-colored monsters will delight the young 'uns.

But the movie loses steam in the last half. The sets--hallways and storage rooms--are much less visually interesting, and the narrative resorts to repeated chase sequences that might show off the animation but don't do much for the story. The film also crosses the line into gross sentimentality, pushing the nostalgia button just like Toy Story 2 did. My friend Garth didn't mind that sort of manipulation, but I found it obvious and slightly creepy.

The film is also unintentionally creepy. A recurring sub-plot involves faceless monsters in haz-mat suits who are continually decontaminating areas where the little girl has been. In the midst of the anthrax scare, it was impossible not to be distracted by the similarities to images on the news.

But perhaps Monsters, Inc. will provide a way for parents to actually discuss current events with their children, using analogies from a kids' movie to explain as well as comfort. In that way, it might somehow calm their fears, just like a certain book did for my sister many years ago.

J. Robert Parks 10/31/2001


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