Who doesn't remember the scary monster in the closet, the heartless beast who terrorized us when we were small and very much alone? But where did it come from, how did it pass the time during off hours, and what was it doing in our closet in the first place?
"Monsters, Inc.," the new computer-animated film from Pixar, the people who brought you "A Bug's Life" and both "Toy Story" films, has clever answers to all those questions. To the more pressing dilemma of how this venture measures up to its predecessors, however, the answer is not so promising.
For those three previous features, with their uncommon ability to appeal equally to children and adults by being smart, funny and emotionally resonant, have set the bar dauntingly high. And though it has its charms, "Monsters, Inc." does not measure up. As a childhood entertainment it is certainly fine, but Pixar's celebrated lure for adults is largely absent. Directed by Pete Docter and written by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson, "Monsters, Inc." does its best work setting up the city of Monstropolis, the parallel world the closet-scarers call home, an amusing locale where traffic signals say "Stalk" and "Don't Stalk" and a hot restaurant is called Harryhausen's (after the legendary master of stop-motion animation).
As it turns out, the employees of Monsters, Inc. (motto: "We Scare Because We Care") terrify us for a reason. Screams are the fuel this city runs on, and, says crab-like company head Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), the shrinking of the childhood window of innocence means kids don't scare like they used to. What's needed are scarers who are tenacious, tough, intimidating. Scarers like James P. Sullivan (John Goodman).
Familiarly known as Sulley, this Stakhanovite of scarers is an easygoing big galoot whose only rival for the coveted Scarer of the Month title is the sinister, chameleon-like Randall Boggs (an excellent Steve Buscemi).
Sulley rooms with his loyal "scare assistant" Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), whose job is to provide advice and counsel on the factory's "scare floor" and set up the myriad bedroom doors that the scarers walk through to collect their screams.
But that door opens both ways, and through it wanders a little girl who comes to be known as Boo (Mary Gibbs). This might not sound like the "Kid-tastrophe" the local newspapers call it, except that the residents of Monstropolis are as scared of kids as kids are of them. One toxic childhood touch, they believe, could be fatal, which is why even a hint of contamination brings the dread commandos of the Child Detection Agency and their scorched-earth tactics to the scene. So Sulley's decision to protect Boo and get her safely home is trickier than it might seem.
As a setup, this is well done, but as "Monsters, Inc." unfolds, glitches appear. Pixar's technical advances mean its creatures look increasing realistic: The depiction of the hair that covers Sulley is apparently the breakthrough this time. Despite this, the look of the film's monsters does not fascinate: The insects in "A Bug's Life" were much more varied, fun and interesting. And little Boo turns out to be too cute for her own good; she seems so much like a walking doll she has difficulty holding our attention as a character.
Also, despite occasional references to drinking lattes and rolling blackouts, the dialogue here is not up to the usual Pixar standards and is only sporadically appealing to adults. Even the wonderfully indefinable tones of Bob Peterson as the sluggish Roz, the queen of paperwork, can't make enough of a difference.
Part of the difficulty is that the character intended for comic relief, giant eyeball Mike, is more irritant than amuser. As written by Stanton and Gerson and voiced by Crystal, Mike is a frantic, frenetic pain in the rear whose whiny antics are especially off-putting when compared with what Eddie Murphy did with the similar Donkey role in "Shrek."
Still, "Monsters, Inc." has some good things to fall back on. There's excitement in the jeopardy-filled final third, though, perhaps the victim of one story conference too many, the plot's twists play as overly complex. The film's conclusion is a sweet one, and the notion of having nothing to fear but fear itself is a commendable one to pass on to young audiences. It can't join its Pixar brethren in being all things to all people, but if you're small, you're not going to mind.
MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: Some moments may be too scary for the very young.
John Goodman: Sulley
Billy Crystal: Mike
Mary Gibbs: Boo
Steve Buscemi: Randall
James Coburn: Waternoose
Jennifer Tilly: Celia
A Pixar Animated Studios film, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Pete Docter. Producer Darla K. Anderson. Executive producers John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton. Screenplay Andrew Stanton, Daniel Gerson. Editor Jim Stewart. Music Randy Newman. Production design Harley Jessup, Bob Pauley. Art directors Tia W. Kratter, Dominique Louis. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
In general release.