Pixar's monstrous track record continues
By MATT NANIA
Scene Movie Editor
The interesting thing about all of the movies from Pixar Animation Studios (with the exception of 1998's "A Bug's Life") is that, unlike the rest of the offerings in the history of animated cinema, they haven't chosen to attempt the theatrics of exotic, fantastical settings and characters.
Instead, they've gone after the domestic American childhood, the stuff of such thematic elements like favorite toys and monsters under the bed.
It's a fitting choice because, like the years of innocence they portray, these computer-generated movies are still the new kids on the block, enduring that adolescent period of refinement. Pixar's films have been an evolution before our eyes, and "Monsters, Inc.," the latest in their lineage, is, if not the best of their films, then at least the most streamlined, imaginatively packaged yet.
"Toy Story 2" is still the king of Pixar's features, mostly because the work done there by John Lasseter and company built on the foundation of "Toy Story" and achieved a level of complexity and depth that was the parallel of Hollywood's finest live-action pictures.
In some ways, "Monsters, Inc." builds on the "Toy Story" films, although in an indirect sense. Audiences will expect the same level of intelligence and wry humor coupled with physical comedy and sight gags in the same seamless fashion that has come to represent the Pixar brand of comedy.
Having already established an audience, director Peter Docter and his supporting team of creative talent are free to streamline the process already established by Lasseter. This is most obviously accomplished in the animation itself, which gets better with every outing, but also in the story and in its content. "Monsters, Inc." features far fewer pop culture references — they aren't as crucial as they were in Pixar's previous films (or even more so in DreamWorks's "Shrek") — and with less time devoted to standup comedy, this film is by far the fastest moving of Pixar's titles.
Indeed, "Monsters, Inc." is the souped-up Porsche of the bunch, ready for the open road in its nonstop delivery of images and sounds all while serving up a surprisingly coherent story.
The premise of the film is this: Behind our world exists the world of bedtime monsters, who frighten children in order to capture the screams that will power their world. Despite this seemingly cruel-hearted plot, the monsters are actually benevolent types who are deathly afraid of any infection from the human world (a stray sock prompts a SWAT team-like response from a decontamination squad).
Most of the monsters are good-natured, like the leading "scarer" James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) and his assistant Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). But evil is afoot in the form of the serpentine Randall (Steve Buscemi), who plots to economize the monsters' scare collection by extracting them directly from the child.
It's a difficult call as to whether this paranoia-based comedy is enhanced by the presence of high-priced voice talent like Crystal, Goodman and Buscemi. They certainly don't have the seasoned rapport that Tom Hanks and Tim Allen developed in "Toy Story 2." Still, Crystal and Goodman have their own give-and-take, and its one that might compete with the Allen-Hanks combo by the time an eventual sequel is made.
The best thing that Crystal and Goodman have to offer is an unquestionably fluid integration into the story world — the viewer will not find himself watching the film and pointing out Crystal's polished Jersey drawl or Goodman's rumbling bass tones. Instead, the gigantic blue-haired beast that is James P. Sullivan and the lone eyeball that is Mike emit unique voices.
As always, they have plenty of great lines to say, and if the film is less partial to the ubiquitous pop culture references that became trendy overnight (again, watch "Shrek" to find out), then it is masterful of situational comedy. Much like "Toy Story 2," the film doesn't play out like a bunch of gags strung together, but rather a constantly moving laugh-fest.
Even if the Pixar features suddenly and shockingly became unfunny, they would still be first-tier entertainment because of the animated excellence. A fine example of Pixar's unparalleled skill in combining visuals, sound, adventure and creativity, is the wild roller coaster-like ride through the innards of the Monsters, Inc. factory near the end of the film. It provides the final burst of energy in a movie that is perfectly paced and timed at about 90 minutes long (the ironclad running length for current animated features), and it raises the bar for Pixar's future releases.
The constantly escalating expectations of fans may be Pixar's only challenge; they've clearly mastered the formula while managing not to seem formulaic.
The tradition that began with "Toy Story" and continued with "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2" is still going in "Monsters, Inc.," another superb addition to Pixar's library of priceless titles. -- Four shamrocks (out of five)
Contact Matt Nania at email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, November 8, 2001