Monsters, Inc. (U)

It's clever, it's exotic, it's Disney
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The Independent Culture

In J K Huysmans' novel Against Nature, the bible of the 1880s French Decadents, the world-weary hero Des Esseintes devotes himself to the cult of all that is artificial, unnatural and perverse in creation. He has a special fondness for plants that don't look like plants, but imitate the appearance of stone, paper, silk, rotting flesh. A hundred and forty years on, cinema has produced a work that would drive Des Esseintes wild, a film rich in tactile and wholly artificial surfaces, a very sampler of exotic textures for the sated aesthete. Who would ever have expected that from Walt Disney?

Monsters, Inc. is Disney's latest digital animation release made by Pixar, creators of the Toy Story films. It pretty much contains something to please everyone – witty script, ingenious narrative, the odd discreetly tear-jerking moment, a toe-tapping Randy Newman song, not to mention the now-customary closing montage of cod out-takes. It will delight kids of all ages, as they say. But not nearly as much as it will tickle our nostril-flaring hyper-aesthete, who seems to be the film's true target viewer.

Monsters, Inc. has an almost tangible sense of texture, especially if you manage to see it in a nice vivid digital projection. Toy Story and its sequel were already big on texture, in their exploration of the sheen of different plastics, but this one goes even further. It's especially strong on those organic materials that computer imagery has traditionally found nigh-on impossible to get right. The film's great achievement is the creation of James P Sullivan, aka Sulley, voiced by John Goodman – an eight-foot horned behemoth covered in thick turquoise and purple fur. There are supposedly some three million individual hairs in this miraculous pelt, and talk about sensuous – you want to reach out and touch it as it ripples and shudders and resists the onslaught of snow in a blizzard. It is at once absolutely real-looking and entirely artificial – less like animal hair than a forest of hand-crafted fibre-optic strands.

I could go on waxing fetishistic about the film's rhapsody of textures: about the rough crustacean shell of Sulley's crab-like boss (James Coburn); about the tinier tactile details like the minutely-observed rubbery folds at the corners of characters' mouths; or about the yellow-suited SWAT-style troopers seemingly modelled in Plasticine, surely a homage to the Aardman school.

But you'll want to know about the story eventually, and that's pretty ingenious too. The city of Monstropolis is fuelled by the screams of children from our world, collected by the expert scarers of Monsters, Inc., who pop out at night from behind cupboard doors which double as inter-dimensional portals. Chief scarer is Sulley, and his trusty sidekick is Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a wisecracking one-eyed pea on legs (one of the film's best gags is that its gruesome apparitions all have ordinary working-stiff names like Peterson, Sanderson, Jones, Rivera).

The film's basic conceit reworks the standard Munsters inversion by which monstrous things seem ordinary and everyday things become unspeakably vile. A small, curious child, a little girl named Boo, accidentally wanders into Monstropolis, and while we see her as a button-cute moppet, to our heroes she's a Godzilla-like abomination. "That thing is a killing machine!" shrieks Wazowski as Boo runs riot, her gurgling giggles causing power surges that immobilise the entire city.

It doesn't really matter that Monsters, Inc. is narratively a bit derivative. So what if the indestructible baby-in-peril gags are straight out of Roger Rabbit, if Boo and Sulley have a sort of innocent King Kong/Fay Wray relationship going, and if Sulley and Wazowski themselves (a perfect vocal match of Goodman's bear-like basso and Crystal's kvetch-a-second gibber) are really Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, blue-collar heroes right down to their lunch pails? All that simply makes the film richer in subtext. The Monsters, Inc. plant (motto: "We Scare Because We Care") could be Hollywood itself, a Fordian assembly line for chills and thrills; but ultimately, the film defends the hands-on methods of the expert charismatic scarer over the mass-production method devised by serpentine, purple-scaled villain Randall (Steve Buscemi providing the sneers and hisses). If you like, the film is an argument for Pixar's artisanal approach, an apologia for the painstaking de luxe method that Monsters, Inc. amply vindicates.

Central to the film's appeal is the way that the human child Boo – needless to say, the least lifelike figure in the film – is voiced by a real-life three-year-old, Mary Gibbs, whose artless babble gives the film a bizarre organic touch that nicely offsets the surrounding artifice and alien quality. Monsters, Inc. may be patchy on characterisation compared to Toy Story, but what matters is the pacing and the constant invention. For proof that the people at Pixar think bigger and crazier than just about anyone in Hollywood is provided by the action finale, which involves millions of doors (some 5.7 million, apparently) circulating in mid-air on a labyrinthine system of overhead rails – a routine that takes the idea of theme-ride cinema to a sublimely ambitious extreme.

Even after two Toy Story films, some might still be tempted to write off this kind of digital entertainment as simply flashy fun for kids, yet there's so much invention here – on every level, from slam-bang routines to little in-jokes buried away in the design – that it gives you a sense of cinema rediscovering its ingenuity and its nerve endings again. Monsters, Inc. somehow feels a much purer, more joyous display of computer-generated image trickery than the knowingly "adult", self-referential Shrek. This is state-of-the-art children's cinema, for sure. But it's also the latest pioneering research-and-development experiment on cinematic perception, as well as a transcendently elegant experience for the decadent sensualist in you. There's something here to reawaken the most jaded optical tastebuds.