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Scaring Up Laughs 

Disney scores big with latest toy story

Ever since it was announced that next year's Oscar ceremony would be the first to include the newly formed Best Animated Feature category, it was generally agreed that, sight unseen, the only serious challengers for the statue would be DreamWorks' summer smash Shrek and Disney's latest offering, Monsters, Inc. Months later, that perception still holds. And with apologies to the not-so-jolly green giant, I gotta say that my vote squarely goes to Disney's creatures of the night. Teaming once again with Pixar Animation Studios, Disney has fashioned a vastly entertaining romper room of a movie that, in terms of quality, rests somewhere between the Toy Story twofer and A Bug's Life. If the shenanigans of the characters in Monsters, Inc. don't quite match the go-for-broke exploits of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, they're at least a step up from the energetic but empty achievements of the colorful insects populating A Bug's Life. Part of it may have to do with our own concrete notions -- it's easier to cuddle up to the playthings of our rose-colored past than to pesky, squishy bugs that end up camping in our sugar bowl or buzzing about our ears. Yet while the word "monsters" doesn't imply a kid-friendly environment any more than "insects," the truth is that many of our children's playmates are totally benign offshoots of ungodly creations -- everything from Count Chocula and Barney the dinosaur to all those misshapen puppets from Sesame Street and The Muppets.

Monsters, Inc. ingeniously takes this notion one step further: In this film's world, it's the monsters who are terrified of the children. The sharp screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson posits that the burg of Monstropolis is powered by the screams of small children, and the only way to harness that energy is for a company called Monsters, Inc. to send its employees through kids' closets in an attempt to generate worthy shrieks of terror. Of course, the assignment is no picnic for the monsters, who believe that human children are toxic and that physical contact with them could lead to illness and perhaps even death.

But James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voiced in teddy bear fashion by John Goodman) isn't too concerned. This gentle giant is the company's top scarer, inducing so many howls and screeches, he's on pace to break the company's all-time record. Firmly in his corner is his right-hand, uh, man, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a wise-cracking green thingee composed of a giant eyeball, spindly legs, and not much else (seeing him, I couldn't help but recall the late Pauline Kael's description of actor Bob Hoskins as "a testicle on legs").

Admittedly, Sully does have to contend with a sleazy co-worker also bent on breaking the record, a reptilian critter named Randall (Steve Buscemi). But even more of an immediate threat -- not only to Sulley but to Monstropolis itself -- is that he has inadvertently allowed a human child, a bubbly tyke nicknamed Boo (adorably voiced by 5-year-old Mary Gibbs), to pass through the closet door and enter their world. Suddenly, it's a state of national emergency, and although Sulley and Mike eventually discover the child is harmless, the maneuverings of the military-industrial complex convince them they need to return little Boo to her bedroom before matters really get out of hand.

At this point, it's redundant to state that each new computer-animated feature pushes the boundaries of the genre just a little more, so I'll downplay that angle and simply note that Monsters, Inc. is a visual marvel, period. What's more interesting to me is how much care is taken at the screenplay level. Let's face it: Kids would line up to see sights this wondrous even if they were in service of a lame Power Rangers story, but Disney-Pixar is taking real care to ensure that adults will derive as much pleasure out of the proceedings as their easily impressionable offspring.

The easy-going friendship between the congenial Sulley and the slightly cynical Mike is par for the course in both animated and non-animated features (it's but one variation on the venerable "odd couple" routine), but what's unexpected about this film is the genuine poignancy established in the relationship between Sulley and Boo. Theirs is a tender bond, and while it may be in service of the usual Disney homilies on the order of "Don't judge by appearances" and "Don't let your fear rule you," there's nevertheless a heart-shredding urgency in the scene in which Boo, who affectionately calls Sulley "kitty" (she thinks he's just a big ole pussycat), becomes truly frightened as she watches Sulley let out a room-shaking roar during a practice session. Things soon right themselves, of course, but this sequence serves as a disturbing reminder (even more so to been-there-done-that adults) that the security blanket of childhood can unravel at a moment's notice and can unfortunately never be taken for granted.

Other scattered pleasures are less unsettling, from the name of a ritzy Monstropolis restaurant (Harryhausen's, after the great special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen) to a cameo appearance of sorts by Toy Story 2's cowgirl Jessie. And the finale, set inside a gargantuan factory full of closet doors on conveyor belts (ducking inside one might land you in a child's room in, say, Paris or Tokyo), is the sort of imaginatively conceived set piece we'd expect to wrap up such a class act cartoon.

So just how much of a success is Monsters, Inc.? Lemme put it this way: A friend of mine, a Manor staple who abhors mainstream Hollywood fare and rarely has a kind word for any movie that costs more than $29.99 to produce, was delighted by it. If that's not a selling point for the film's across-the-board appeal, I don't know what is.

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