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Scream Machine 

It's a tough job scaring people, but somebody's gotta do it. Sometimes the job's so tough, it makes you wonder if there's a better way. That's the basic premise for the latest from the red-hot Pixar animation team that has churned out successive hits in the two Toy Story films wrapped around A Bug's Life. At first glance, it's a simple enough conceit, conjuring a world where monsters endure the 9-to-5 grind of transporting themselves into children's bedrooms, scaring the daylights out of them and bottling their screams. For screams, it seems, are the energy that powers Monstropolis.

But beyond what could have been a flimsy skeleton upon which to hang another modern animation movie for kids, Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter -- who worked on the previous films' animation teams -- strives for an old-fashioned groove with innocent storytelling and cheeky pokes at corporate culture. Taking over the reins for Pixar's main man, John Lasseter, Docter uses familiar tricks to tell a lively parable about the power of human emotion. From the Pink Panther-style cartoon work and 1940s jazz score (courtesy of veteran Pixar composer Randy Newman) that graces the opening and closing credits to the Maurice Sendak-inspired protagonist Sully, the young Docter sure has a whiff of nostalgia about him. Even some of the inside jokes have a dash of a bygone era; I mean, who references the Armour hot dog commercial jingle from the '70s these days?

Simpler times, yes, and simplicity seems to be what Docter is going for even while benefiting from what is supposed to be Pixar's most sophisticated animation technology yet. Even the characters' names are virtually pun-free. That combination makes Monsters, Inc. an enjoyable film for all ages even if it does skew toward the more predictable target audience. Heck, it even scores pretty low on the manipulation meter, which is always a good thing when it comes to kids' movies.

James P. "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman's voice) is a goodhearted lummox of a guy who looks like he stepped right out of Sendak's children's classic Where the Wild Things Are He also happens to be the top dog at Monsters, Inc., whose motto is "We scare because we care." With his eyeball-meets-M&M-shaped pal and co-worker Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), Sully leads his power-plant crew in extracting screams from children after being transported into their bedroom through a steady procession of closet doors. But, like in other worlds, there's a bit of an energy shortage, as the company president Harry J. Waternoose (James Coburn) laments, "Kids these days, they just don't get scared like they used to."

So times are tough, as is the competition to meet the quota, as Sully knows all too well in his rivalry with the chameleonic Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi). Randall would do anything to knock Sully off his perch, including putting in a little unauthorized overtime on the side while developing a dangerous ... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. When Sully tries to cover for Mike while his buddy woos the company secretary (Jennifer Tilly), he stumbles upon a door that leads him into a little girl's room. Next thing you know, the kid accidentally slips through the portal and into the factory, which is a huge no-no at Monsters, Inc. Kids' screams might be a cherished commodity, but their actual skin is allegedly toxic.

Thus begins a series of cat-and-mouse games as Sully keeps hunting down his new-found friend ("Boo") in the hopes of returning her home safely, and the slippery Randall trying to cover up his shenanigans.

Goodman, Crystal and Buscemi are all wonderful, which is impressive in the mere fact that the recent live-action output of Goodman and Crystal has been nothing short of annoying. Goodman's voice, always rich in its resonance, fills Sully with warmth, and he never overdoes it (the classic animation-voiceover temptation). The surprising "star" of the voices is little Mary Gibbs' Boo, who has the cute babble down but also has authenticity that's rare in children's animation voices.

The animation, the obvious star here, is a testament to Pixar's advances in recent years that supposedly have transcended the accomplishments of the previous three mega-hits. (The press kit boasts that the computer technology required 2.5 million "rendermarks" compared to nearly 1.1 million used for 1999's Toy Story 2; do with that what you will.) While all the monsters have their own cute little idiosyncrasies, it's the movement and depth of perception that are so realistic and eye-catching. As Sully sails through the air in yet another misadventure, for example, his soft purple and green mane flows gently in the wind.

While Docter succumbs to an unnecessary bout of sap at the very end, Monsters, Inc. remains a fun little animation ride in the spirit of its Pixar predecessors that shows how being old-fashioned in such a modern world can be a good thing.

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