Disney scares up a 'Monster' hit

In a quieter season, "Monsters, Inc." would have been the obvious winner of the family-friendly fantasy sweepstakes. It's sure to open strongly this weekend, but it'll face stiff competition soon from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," coming in two weeks, and "The Fellowship of the Ring," due in December.

"Monsters, Inc." was made by the same Disney-Pixar collaboration that created the legendary "Toy Story," and it aims for a similar blend of adult sophistication and child-pleasing silliness. The premise might be a tad complicated for the youngest viewers, but even toddlers will have a good time once the comic action kicks in.

The story takes place in Monstropolis, a monster city where energy is generated from children's screams. Since kids don't yowl enough on their own, a company called Monsters, Inc. employs professional kiddie-scarers to pop out of closet doors and frighten tykes in their beds.

The movie's cutest twist is that the monsters are more scared of kids than kids are of them, because they think human children are toxic. This starts to change when the company's top-ranking scarer gets attached to a little girl called Boo, who follows him back to Monstropolis, teaching him a lot about children but putting his job in jeopardy.

With its big-bodied monsters and screaming kids, "Monsters, Inc." wouldn't manage its G rating if it didn't treat every angle of the story with gentleness and tact. The main characters, scare champion Sulley and his sidekick Mike, are as sweet in disposition as they are ridiculous in appearance. It's easy to believe a 3-year-old like Boo could wrap them around her little finger - and if she's not frightened by them, there's no reason why kids in the audience should be.

Like most high-tech animated movies, this one has awesome statistics: Sulley's colorful fur contains nearly 3 million individual hairs; the "door vault" at Monster's, Inc. contains 5.7 million separate doors; the production required more than twice as much computing power as "Toy Story 2," and so on.

But none of this will matter if the movie doesn't make you laugh, cry, and shiver. The kids I saw it with found it a lot funnier than I did, and while its grown-up touches are amusing - a monster love affair, references to old movies - many struck me as more calculated than clever. "Toy Story" remains the best modern-day animation. Even the Disney/Pixar team may never top it.

Rated G; contains no objectionable material.

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