Next to kicking off the feature-length cartoon business with "Snow White," Disney's smartest animation move has been its partnership with Pixar, which produced the "Toy Story" movies and "A Bug's Life."
It's hard enough to create a single big-budgeted, quality cartoon. Other studios have gotten burned on them, leaving the field mainly to Disney and lately, DreamWorks.
With "Monsters, Inc.", Pixar maintains its perfect batting average, going four-for-four with another smart, funny, adorable animated world populated by endearing characters and propelled by a premise even more clever than that of "Toy Story."
Pixar continues to hoist the bar higher on computer animation, crafting a dazzling universe that big-foots the images of "Toy Story 2" from 1999 and even runs lengths ahead of DreamWorks' "Shrek," barely half a year old.
Like the "Toy Story" tales, "Monsters, Inc." is a buddy movie, this time between James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) -- a horned behemoth with green and purple fur -- and his pal Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a green, one-eyed creature resembling a moldy hard-boiled egg with spindly arms and legs.
Sulley is top scarer at Monsters Inc., an energy company that collects children's screams as a fuel source for the city of Monstropolis. Mike is Sulley's scare assistant on the factory floor, where conveyor cables haul in doors that allow monsters to sneak out of kids' closets at night.
Hard times have struck Monstropolis, though. Seems today's jaded little ones aren't as prone as their parents were to yelp when beasties wander into their rooms. So Monstropolis is in an energy crisis, facing rolling blackouts.
"Kids these days, they just don't get scared like they used to," moans Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), a spidery crab thing that runs the factory.
Sulley's scare rival Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), a giant chameleon with an evil, Grinchlike grin, has a foul plot to extract more bang for the boos out of children. But bedlam strikes when Sulley accidentally lets a little girl into Monstropolis, then enlists Mike to help return her to the human world.
Nicknamed Boo by Sulley, the girl is voiced by Mary Gibbs, daughter of Pixar story artist Rob Gibbs. Her vocals are wonderfully precious as she giggles and chatters, following Sulley around calling him "Kitty."
As with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in "Toy Story," Goodman and Crystal's voices blend well, with Mike's whiny schtick a nice contrast for Sulley's rumbling bass.
Unlike "Toy Story," which had an ensemble of idiosyncratic voice talent, "Monsters, Inc." is mostly a two-man show. John Ratzenberger, veteran of Pixar's three earlier films, livens up "Monsters" briefly as the incongruously upbeat Abominable Snowman, who laments that people can't call him the Agreeable Snowman.
Rounding out the main cast is Mike's girlfriend Celia (Jennifer Tilly), a receptionist with Medusa serpents for hair.
The visuals of "Monsters, Inc." are a wonder, each character distinct and personable, the stunts and sight gags canny and briskly paced. Monstropolis is an artful mirror of our world, with trim brownstones and a factory built at the height of baby-boom (and child-scaring) prosperity, now showing its age in a slowing monster economy.
Pixar's crowning achievement is Sulley's thick fur, one of the hardest things to simulate on computer. Here, Pixar's animators have created a shaggy pelt so meticulous and real that animal-rights activists might think about tossing fake blood on Goodman for climbing inside a monster suit of genuine fur.
Pete Docter, the Pixar veteran who dreamed up the story line, makes a terrific debut as lead director on "Monsters, Inc." Lee Unkrich and David Silverman share co-directing credit. John Lasseter, Pixar's creative chief and director of its first three films, serves as executive producer.
Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson's screenplay is punchy and loaded with witty asides that adults will appreciate.
Randy Newman, composer for the three previous Pixar films, returns with a big-band score that conjures up the musical mayhem of '30s and '40s screwball comedies.
"Monsters, Inc." is preceded by a short cartoon called "For the Birds," an amusing lead-in to the main attraction.
"Monsters, Inc.," a Disney release, is rated G. Running time: 92 minutes.
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