Sweet but not saccharine, cute but not sick-making, Monsters, Inc. isn’t in the same league as Shrek, but then it really isn’t meant to be. Shrek was an animated film for adults that had sufficient whimsy to also appeal to children. Monsters, Inc. is an animated film for children that has enough savvy humor to appeal to adults (even to the extent of naming a sushi bar, “Harryhausen’s,” after the famous animator). One thing the two films very much do have in common is that both sufficiently involve the viewer in characters and story to the point that it’s quite possible to forget that it’s a cartoon. That’s a blessing from a dramatic standpoint, but almost a shame from a creative one, since it slights the films’ very real technical achievements. Still, the biggest hurdle for an animated film — especially one from the ultra-technocratic world of computer animation — lies in creating something recognizably human, something that takes away the mickey of being too much the product of a machine. It’s interesting — and perhaps instructive — to realize that a film like Monsters, Inc. scores so many of the points necessary to cross that hurdle not by attempting to emulate reality. (The computer animated film that most closely approximates that so far is The Final Fantasy, which, ironically, is the least human of all.) Instead, it aims for the reality of the familiar — in this case the old Warner Bros. cartoons — to achieve a kind of heightened emotional reality. In other words, by giving the film a modified version of the look and feel of something unreal that we’re all so completely used to, it affords the illusion of being an old friend in slightly new clothes with a fresh batch of new jokes and stories for us. Even the film’s score by Randy Newman is in the Warner Bros. mode, suggesting that Newman listened to a lot of Raymond Scott (the source for so much of the music in the classic cartoons) records before setting out to write the music for the movie. As soon as we meet our monstrous heroes, Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal), they seem like characters we’ve known all our lives. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Pixar and Disney have made sure that, unless you live in a cave, you’ve seen the duo for months in advertising and tie-in merchandise. Children are so pre-sold on this one that they arrive at theatres wearing shirts featuring the characters’ images.) The premise of the film also cleverly plays and expands on the familiar. In this case, it’s the old childhood fear of a monster in the closet. The twist is two-fold: not only are there monsters in children’s closets (they collect screams to power their city, “Monstropolis”), but they’re as terrified of the children as the children are of them. What’s interesting here is the fact that the monsters are only frightened of children because they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the powers that be — namely that human children are toxic and that “one touch from a child can kill.” All it takes is genuine interaction between one such child, Boo (voiced by Mary Gibbs), and Sulley to prove this carefully fostered fear is groundless. Monsters, Inc. doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with the inherent message in this, but it’s undeniably there — and might just make some children (and maybe a few adults) stop and rethink prejudices and fears they’ve been taught. This isn’t meant to make it sound like Monsters, Inc. is in any way preachy, but it does have both a message and a heart amidst all the fun and jokes and thrills. (And don’t short-sell the thrills. The climactic chase to find Boo’s door on a gigantic conveyor of doors is more excitingly accomplished than most live-action scenes of this nature.) It’s all rich and fun and funny. It’s also very good filmmaking on any level. The final shot in the film and the way it’s handled is one of the finest and most beautifully economical in recent memory — evocative of the ending shots of Chaplin’s City Lights and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and beautifully effective on its own merits.
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