Eric D. Snider

Monsters, Inc.

In this era of mediocre blockbusters and "family" films full of crudeness and stupidity, it's nice to know there's still a name you can trust: Disney. (Well, Disney animation, anyway; the live-action stuff is hit-or-miss.)

Disney works with Pixar, which did the computer-animated features "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life." Pixar is also behind the new "Monsters, Inc.," a thoroughly entertaining outing that will delight audiences of all ages.

The setting is Monstropolis, a geographically unidentified city of monsters who live normal lives, just like we do. They have families, go to work, and eat at restaurants. One of the city's major industries is Monsters, Inc., a power plant that uses the screams of human children to provide the city with electricity. The screams are gathered by sending monsters into children's bedrooms via their closets, scaring them, then dashing back to the factory. It's exactly what all kids are afraid of, but for the monsters, it's all in a day's work.

Monsters, Inc.'s greatest scarer is James P. "Sully" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman), a furry, Bigfoot-type creature. He is assisted by his life-long friend Mike (Billy Crystal), a short green ball with one big eye and a couple of stick arms and legs.

Chaos erupts in Monstropolis when a little girl accidentally follows a monster through the closet door back into the factory. Monsters fear contamination if they come in contact with kids -- they're supposed to scare them, but not touch them -- but that fear seems to be unfounded. (That the toxicity issue is never resolved is the film's one oversight.)

Sully and Mike have to get the little tyke back to her bedroom without getting caught by the boss (James Coburn), all the while avoiding the chameleon-like Randall (Steve Buscemi), a slimy co-worker jealous of Sully's track record.

The idea of yanking screams from children sounds ghastly on paper, but in the film, it's amusing, even whimsical. There is no real "terror" in the movie, in part because the monsters are so personable. We really buy that it's just a job for them, with no ill will toward the kids, whom they're actually rather afraid of.

Sully grows fond of the toddler, and an incredibly sweet relationship develops between them, even though she's too young to have mastered the art of speech yet. She can say "Boo!," which is what Sully starts calling her, and she can say "Kitty!," which is what she calls him. The inherent nastiness in frightening kids to harness their screams becomes an issue for Sully -- how could he ever scare another child after learning to love this one? -- and it's all resolved very pleasantly in the end.

The tone is as light and jaunty as the "Toy Story" films, though not quite as expansive. Those films had a whole ensemble of fantastic characters, while this one focuses on just a few, making the thing seem a little smaller in scope. The "Monsters" characters are not as well-defined, either, though they are certainly likable.

But pound for pound, no film this year has been as genuinely witty as "Monsters, Inc." It is fast-paced, tightly written, solidly acted, ingeniously funny and ultimately very touching (but not sappy). There's no padding, no pandering, no jokes that are desperate or lame, no annoying characters, no situations that don't make sense, no unmotivated actions, no twists that come from out of nowhere. It's smart, funny, sweet, good-natured, kind, clever and friendly. It's very nearly what all movies should be, but usually aren't.

Grade: A

Rated G

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