Movies: Scare The Heck Out Of 'Shrek'?

Shoulder to shoulder, they stride in heroic slow motion into the hangarlike factory, backlit like the space cowboys in "The Right Stuff." Except these fierce, determined guys look weird. One of them is eight feet tall with turquoise and purple fur; another is an eight-legged reptile. These are the Scarers, the elite monsters who keep the city of Monstropolis running. Every night these astronauts of fear transport themselves through magical doors into the closets of human kids, reaching into their venerable bag of tricks to generate shrieks of terror. For, you see, the power source that keeps the lights burning in the land of the monsters is children's screams, captured in canisters. Trouble is, kids today don't scare so easily. Which has left Monstropolis facing an energy crisis. rolling blackouts predicted, run the headlines in the city's papers.

This is the fiendishly clever premise of "Monsters, Inc.," the fourth computer-animated feature brought to life by Pixar, the wizards behind the two "Toy Story"s and "A Bug's Life." These are tough acts to follow: three instant classics funny and sophisticated enough to equally charm adults and children. If "Monsters, Inc." doesn't quite reach the same heights (it's the only one not directed by John Lasseter), it's still a terrific piece of work: smart, inventive and executed with state-of-the-art finesse.

That turquoise and purple beast goes by the name of Sulley (voiced by John Goodman). He's the Michael Jordan of fearmongers, with the best stats in the business. This sticks in the reptilian craw of his rival Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who'll do anything to steal his crown. Each of these working stiffs has a scare assistant, a combination of coach and corner man. Sulley's is his best friend, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a scrappy, fast-talking, green ovoid with a single giant eyeball. It's amazing how many expressions these animators can wrangle from one prize pupil.

The monsters' little secret is that they are actually terrified of kids: believing that children are toxic, they live in fear of being touched by one of the little devils. When one of the Scarers returns to the factory with a child's sock stuck on its fur, pandemonium sets in. Monsters protected by sterile uniforms rush in to "decontaminate" the area. "Monsters, Inc." was conceived, of course, long before our newspapers were filled with images of guys in spacesuits searching for signs of anthrax, but these scenes now carry an unintended load of dread. When a monster-shrink, losing his cool, appears on the Monstropolis TV news and screams "It's time to panic!" at least some in the audience may be more inclined to squirm than laugh. But not to worry: the good-natured "Monsters, Inc." is decidedly kid-friendly. With the exception of the slimy Randall, these oddball creatures are all softies, and none more so than the teddy-bearish Sulley, whose fearsome talents we have to take on faith.

The crisis that fuels the plot is Sulley's discovery of an enemy in their midst: Boo, a toddler from the human world, slips through a portal into Monstropolis, terrifying Sulley and Mike, who must figure out how to get her back home without anyone's discovering her. Boo has no fear of the gargoyles who surround her--she gurgles with preverbal delight at these funny-looking creatures. (Perhaps she's seen "Men in Black," whose comic aliens were an obvious inspiration.) The 3-year-old's voice is supplied by Mary Gibbs, and on the evidence of the hilarious noises director Pete Docter has coaxed out of her, she's got a bright comic future.

At first afraid to touch her, Sulley comes to realize she's not toxic at all, and falls in love with the human child. This is sweet, but it does raise questions. If kids really aren't dangerous, why all the fuss? Even the most fanciful of children's tales must have a rigorous inner logic, but there's something fuzzy at the core here. The story line depends on the ironic notion that monsters are afraid of children, but it seriously undercuts itself by revealing that they have nothing to be afraid of. And for a grown-up, Sulley is a rather bland hero: the great thing about Woody and the wonderfully fatuous Buzz Lightyear was the double edge Pixar was able to work into its leading men. Sulley has little bark and no bite.

So Pixar isn't perfect. It's just darn good. "Monsters, Inc." is first and foremost a pastel-hued treat for the eyes, a menagerie of benign grotesques punctuated by witty visual gags. (The street signs in Monstropolis flash stalk. don't stalk.) In the spectacular chase near the end, we are transported into the factory's "door vault," where all the portals are stored: a dizzying vision that includes more than 5 million closet doors on hundreds of mile-long conveyer belts. These are sights only computer animation can bring to such eye-popping life. This is the first year the Academy will bestow an Oscar for best animated feature film. "Shrek" is the favorite, but the folks at Pixar have come up with a worthy competitor.

Monsters, Inc.Disney/Pixar
Opens Nov. 2