The (Un)usual Suspects

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

November 2 marks the second round of the Dreamworks versus Pixar/Disney computer animation battle—first it was Antz versus A Bug’s Life in the fall of 1998, and now it is Shrek versus Monsters, Inc. this year. Just a coincidence, you think?

No wonder they always save the best for last. The premier monster in Monsters, Inc. is not a hairless green ogre, however, but the esteemed James P. Sullivan, nicknamed “Sulley” (John Goodman)—a genial hulk with long blue fur and purple spots, always accompanied by his loyal but absent-minded Scare Assistant, Mike Wakowski (Billy Crystal), who resembles a one-eyed green pea. Both work for Monsters, Incorporated—an energy plant in the well-run township of Monstropolis, managed by a certain Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), who scuttles around on his many legs lamenting the energy crisis. Monstropolis, it turns out, runs on children’s screams—and children are harder to scare than ever. Sulley’s scheming rival at the scream machine factory is the lizard-like Randall Boggs (appropriately voiced by Steve Buscemi), who has the convenient ability to become invisible at whim. Randall, who plans to revolutionize the scaring industry—think sadistic torture and a truly frightening “Scream Extractor”—is also consumed with jealousy for Sulley, the only one who stands between him and the Scarer of the Day title. Eventually Randall’s envy and Sulley’s good-natured clumsiness accidentally let a human child—gasp!—into the monster world, and by the time Sulley gets the chance to return her, he has grown fond of the little girl, affectionately dubbed “Boo.” I swear, this is the perfect post-Halloween movie.

The product of this collaboration helmed by director Pete Docter and executive director John Lasseter (the respective comedic visionary and honorary Oscar-winner behind both sensational Toy Stories) is a hilarious expose of boogeymen and other things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, animated with classic Disney style mixed with the best of Tim Burton. It’s Beauty and the Beast meets The Nightmare Before Christmas in a quirky film that features first-class entertainment.

Pixar has gone three out of three in both box-office smashes and critics’ choices, with a plethora of acclaimed short films like Geri’s Game adding to its extraordinary success. Just try to show me another movie studio with that kind of record. Its unique concoctions of sweetness without gross sentimentality, humor without crude vulgarity and irony without acerbic sarcasm, make movies like Monsters, Inc. the stuff that all movies, not just animated ones, should be made of. To generate computer-animated characters that are more well developed than many live-action film roles is no mean feat. Even “supporting” characters in Monsters, Inc., are no less realized—take Celia, for example, Mike’s recurring girlfriend who has a voice and personality like Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors and hair like Medusa. The offbeat animators at Pixar have cleverly inserted many more references into Monsters, Inc., which devoted (and even not-so-devoted) movie buffs will be able to recognize. Toy Story nostalgics will cheer at elements of the Toy Story 2 airport scenes—absolutely no one can make animated chase sequences as comically exciting and inventive as Lasseter and Co., who also manage to pay tribute to Disney movies galore. This distinctive combination of whimsy and wit defines a distinctive way of filmmaking—what I like to think of as the “Pixar genre.”

Arguably the most important component of this genre is exceptional computer animation: Monsters, Inc. shows just how far graphics have come since Toy Story (1995). When Sulley and Boo traverse the grotty cellar hallways of the factory, it is almost impossible to distinguish the rendered atmosphere from reality. The marvels of digital animation do not detract from the “actors.” The Pixar crew can pack a truly amazing amount of emotion into the eyes and expressions of their creations—emotions that run the gamut from manic hyperactivity to bittersweet poignancy. Nor can technology save a bad story: Screenwriter Andrew Stanton has made sure that his characters trade deliciously witty back-and-forth retorts that are complemented, not dwarfed, by the technology that brings them to two-dimensional life.

Antz may have been an ironic and biting take on the modern workforce; Shrek may have been a refreshing anti-fairy tale that refused to follow the now-humdrum Disney movie formula. But for sheer imagination and consistent superb quality, nobody can touch Pixar’s phenomenal production company, which can charm laughs and approval even from a thing as deadly as a human child. If bedroom closet doors serve as portals between the monstrous and the mortal, Pixar movies serve as portals between reality and virtual reality. With the release date of Monsters, Inc. moved up from its usual Thanksgiving weekend slot to make room for the Harry Potter extravaganza, right now we’ll leave the animation evolution to Linklater and simply revel in Lasseter’s newest treat.

Monsters, INC.

directed by Peter Docter

voices by John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi

Disney/Pixar