In May, DreamWorks asserted itself as the new kid on the animated block, bullying around its adversary, Disney, with cheap references attacking the mouse’s good-natured, family-friendly history — the equivalent of hair-pulling and a kick to the nether regions.
Following every good mother’s advice, Disney walked away and counted to 10. Then the mouse put on his fighting gloves.
Half a year after “Shrek’s” release and only months before it was expected to waltz away with the brand-spanking new animated-feature Oscar, Disney steps up with a prize-winning rebuttal to the animated fairy tale — “Monsters, Inc.” Nowhere to be seen are the low-class movie parodies that carried “Shrek,” nor is there any reference to Spielberg, Katzenberg or Geffen. Remember, this is Walt Disney — the studio that invented good, clean, animated family fun. With one swift blow, Disney has made it clear: They’re as strong as ever and they’re not going to play games with the competition.
On a netherworld inhabited exclusively by monsters (Sasquatch and the creature from the black lagoon both once called this home), James P. Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”) is the Top Scarer at Monsters, Inc. — a power plant that converts children’s screams into electricity. Aided by his one-eyed compatriot and assistant, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal, “America’s Sweethearts”), Sully growls and snarls his way to Employee of the Month status month after month.
As he nears the untouchable record for most scares ever, the most atrocious worksite accident imaginable occurs — a child crosses through a closet door into the monsters’ world. Bearing the responsibility for the slip-up, Sully and Mike do their bumbling best to conceal Boo, a 2-year old equivalent of Damien or Rosemary’s baby.
Maybe because it’s light, maybe because it doesn’t pick fights, or maybe because it’s just so damn Disney-esque, “Monsters, Inc.” succeeds on all levels as a “Toy Story”-style cartoon simple enough to delight the slowest adolescent or the most urbane adult. If you can create a classification — not necessarily a genre, but a grouping — of music called pop, then surely you can do the same for film. “Monsters, Inc.” falls squarely into this classification by meeting all conceivable requirements. It generates laughter, it is polished to precision and it is nearly impossible to truly detest ? or even dislike.
Utilizing the playful banter between the more sensitive teddy bear, Sully, and his suave admirer, Mike, Disney has generated one of the more memorable buddy duos to grace animated cells since their own Robin Hood and Little John. Always loveable in his own pathetic way, the obnoxious Crystal dishes out another memorable performance in a career that has yet to receive even a scratch on its vintage paint job of an image. Similarly, Disney’s casting of Goodman — who earned his animation wings last December with his role in “The Emperor’s New Grove” — demonstrates the company’s masterful art of conservative but efficient casting.
For their parts, Goodman and Crystal joined each other in the sound booth — not a regular practice in animated features. At Goodman’s request, the two recorded their dialogue simultaneously, not in separate sessions, as is standard voiceover fare. The resulting conversations bolster the easygoing conversational humor and de-emphasize the cut-and-paste badda-bing jokes that have become standard animation practice. Complimenting the vocal cast are Steve Buscemi, Jon Voight and Jennifer Tilly — all perfectly cast in humorous supporting roles.
No longer the only sure-fire winner to grace the screens since January of 2001, “Shrek” and its makers at DreamWorks received a wake-up call this weekend. Disney may be the invincible iron man that we were looking for in this, the first week of November.