Pixar, the studio that set a new standard for family entertainment with the spectacular and successful Toy Story franchise and A Bug's Life, have another #1 hit: Monsters, Inc. Monsters got a huge marketing push, guaranteeing it would open impressively. But is this Pixar product good enough maintain the studio's impeccable reputation?

Monsters tells the story of two beasties in Monstropolis, Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman). Sulley is the city's top "Scarer," meaning he steps through portal doors and into childrens' bedrooms to scare the living daylights out of them at night. Mike stands guard, collects each child's screams in a vial, and adds them to Monstropolis's power supply. You see, the city is fueled by fear. But when a little toddler crosses over from our world into the monsters' fear factory, panic breaks out. Children, the monsters believe, are toxic. Sulley and Mike, fearing for their jobs, get busy trying to return the girl to her bedroom before they lose their jobs, and before a nasty, centipede-like monster named Randall kidnaps her for his own purposes. Things get complicated when the little gibberish-talking kid (they call her "Boo) gets to Sulley's heart, which is as big, soft, and fuzzy as he is. Sending Boo back might not be so easy after all.

Critics seem to agree that this production isn't as good as the Toy Story movies. But that doesn't mean they're panning it. Religious media critics who strive to shield us from seeing or hearing any evil can't find fault with Monsters, Inc. John Evans (whose review appears at The Dove Foundation and Preview) calls it "refreshingly free of any suggestive elements, foul language or crude humor" and thus "a welcome addition to family entertainment."

Steven Issac (Focus on the Family) promises, "The adorable Boo will win over every parents' heart the moment they meet her. And nowhere to be seen are the fiends of sexual content, profane language and substance abuse."

Others take the time to consider the quality of the craftsmanship and storytelling. Michael Elliott (Christian Critic) says the movie "is driven and driven well by its story and the characters which tell it."

Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) co-review the film: "Pixar's team of writers, animators, and actors … have proven, once again, that it's story and characters that matter most. Their message is full of love, laughter, fun, and friendship, flavored with a dash of bravery and courage."

Others find a fault or two. "The story, though imaginative, doesn't take full advantage of the concept of things that go bump in the night," says the U.S. Catholic Conference.

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J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) found some of the movie manipulative and sentimental. He also found some scenes "unintentionally creepy. A recurring sub-plot involves faceless monsters in haz-mat suits who are continually decontaminating areas where the little girl has been. In the midst of the anthrax scare, it was impossible not to be distracted by the similarities to images on the news." But he notes that the movie might give parents a way to talk with children about current events. "In that way, it might somehow calm their fears."

Mainstream critics were pleased, but not bowled over. Mark Caro (Chicago Tribune) argues, "Shrek … seemed to be trying to appeal to everybody without providing a consistent tone or message for anybody. Monsters, Inc. … knows its audience of the young and the young at heart. And it offers a lesson that seems particularly apt these days: Scaring kids may be inevitable, but making them laugh is a lot more satisfying."

MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) praises "the quiet and unshowy but loving attention paid to each individual hair in Sulley's fur." She feels the film "is aimed more at the kiddies: it's simpler, sweeter, less deeply affecting. The Toy Story films … are more about the adult nostalgia for childhood than they are about the circumstance of being a child—Monsters touches more on the concerns of childhood that we outgrow and forget: being afraid of monsters, and learning to let go of that fear."

I had a good time with Monsters, Inc. But Billy Crystal's performance as Mike joined a large number of recent animated characters that give a comedian the freedom to ramble on relentlessly with hit-and-miss humor. (This started with Robin Williams in Aladdin.) The Toy Story movies showed us believable friendships, but I kept wondering why Sulley runs around with this whining jabbermouth. If the movie had focused more on storytelling and less on one-liners, the relationship between little Boo and her monster (the most effective and moving element in the movie) might have become even more interesting. Still, there aren't many films around right now that are as harmless and hilarious for the whole family. So go ahead—treat your kids, and yourself.

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The Coen Brothers have given us some of the strangest, funniest, and darkest visions of fortune-hunting in America, from Raising Arizona to Fargo. Riding the wave of Oscar nominations and a hit soundtrack, last year's O Brother, Where Art Thou? stands as their most successful and high-spirited work. They're following it up, strangely enough, with perhaps their biggest downer of all: The Man Who Wasn't There.

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Painstakingly stylized to resemble a classic film noir, the movie stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, the neighborhood barber, a man motivated only by money—but rarely motivated at all. In fact, he's so introverted that he's become something of a vacuum. Passionless, he ambles through his days, giving the same apathetic attention to the newspaper as he does to suspicions that his wife is cheating on him. When an opportunity to get rich quick arrives—dry cleaning, the wave of the future—Ed decides to blackmail his wife's lover so he can get some money and invest. Sure, the wrongdoers have it coming, and now so does Ed. But when it comes, Ed just keeps right on going, so passive and indistinct that law enforcement can't be bothered with investigating him.

This rather twisted comedy did not impress many critics in the religious media. John Adair (Preview) concludes, "while the film carries some positive themes about justice, frequent strong profanities should keep discerning viewers from seeing [the film.]" He does admit, "the enjoyable part of the story is seeing how justice actually does triumph in the end."

The USCC says, "the foreboding film's initial revelations sap the story of its potential dramatic intensity, but the black-and-white film is brilliantly steeped in period atmosphere and aptly conveys the descent of its misguided main character."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) describes it as "a fascinating take on the film noir genre. With the Coen's trademark snarkiness, the movie is significantly funnier than most noirs." He concludes, "While [the movie] can't measure up to the charm of O Brother, it nonetheless is both an entertaining and thought-provoking portrait."

Movieguide's Ted Baehr calls the cinematography magnificent," the direction superb, the acting flawless. But he finds the directors guilty of existential amorality. "The morality is ambivalent as is the spirituality. The Coens say that they want to express post World War II existential dread, but this is not a popular philosophy on which to build a movie, however appealing intellectually."

I have to disagree. (My review is at Looking Closer.) Just because the directors want to "express existential dread" does not mean, however, that they condone it as a healthy frame of mind. Ed, who narrates the story and lends the film his own sullen perspective, is not to be accepted as the voice of wisdom. Looking at the world through his eyes, I found it hard to care for him, or for his wife and his neighbor, even as the wages of sin come down on their heads. This was troubling, and it is supposed to be. At the end, he is clearly a deluded soul, lost in the abyss he has dug for himself.

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This, I think, is the point: there's no such thing as an innocent bystander in life. Ed's fate gives us a clear "WRONG WAY" sign, proving that by acting only in self-interest, a man falls into denial and destructive habits. Ed is a "quiet man," but his choice to withdraw from participating as a husband to his wife and as a friend to his neighbors leads to selfishness and eventually self-destruction. His neighbor, Big Dave, may be a criminal and unfaithful to his wife, but Dave at least shows signs of conscience and even repentance. "Film noir is rarely about heroes," observes Roger Ebert, "but about men of small stature, who are lured out of their timid routines by dreams of wealth or romance." He calls Ed Crane "a man who scarcely exists apart from his transgressions." It's true.

In spite of the lessons we can learn from watching Ed's blindness, his narration does run on too long, stalling the storytelling. The Coens have portrayed moneygrubbers and apathetic antiheroes before (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), but we've never been trapped inside their heads. Fortunately, Roger Deakins' gorgeous, complex black-and-white cinematography give the viewer the sense of seeing a classic that's been kept secret in the vaults for sixty years. Thornton, resembling both Humphrey Bogart and Montgomery Clift, gives a masterful performance, exercising incredible restraint and control, so that Ed's inactivity is a marvel to behold. The role isn't glamorous enough to earn Thornton any awards, but he certainly deserves them.

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Speaking of great actors, Life as a House gives Kevin Kline, one of the most underrated, underused lead actors in movies, a big showy role as George, an architect struggling with a dysfunctional family, even as he is dying of cancer. The movie also introduces us to Hayden Christensen, playing Kline's prodigal son Sam. (This is significant trivia for Star Wars fans, who can tell you that Christensen looks good as the young adult Anakin Skywalker in the new trailer for Attack of the Clones.)

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While the film is being sold as a tearjerker, critics were too busy jotting down complaints to bother with hankies. Most faulted the film for sentimentality, and others for its conflicting signals about right and wrong.

Holly McClure (The Orange County Register) finds "cliches about life, death, relationships, and the importance of the choices we make. Several scenes will tap into the hurt, broken, and bruised areas of many people's lives, and that's why many will relate to it." But, she concludes, the film fails in that it "presents the dysfunctional side in such an unrealistic way—as if it's normal."

The USCC calls it a "contrived drama," and reports that the "few life-affirming moments are sullied by several distasteful episodes, while the rudimentary story about the measure and meaning of a man's worth is emotionally manipulative."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) frowns at a missed opportunity: "This movie shows a father doing his best to reverse the generational curses of his own life, and impart life to a family long forgotten. The theme is 'life through death,' the message of the Cross in a nutshell. Why mar such a great allegorical story and such poignant universal truths with so many smutty side-scenes?"

Mainstream critics aren't sold on the storytelling either.

Mary Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) writes, "Kline and Christensen give terrific, heartfelt performances. But screenwriter Mark Andrus relies too much on convenient coincidence in his plotting and schizophrenic morality in his message. George letting Sam do whatever he wants is bad for his growth as a human being, but a neighbor mom letting her teenage daughter do whatever she wants—including shower with a male houseguest—is an indication of her maturity. Doesn't work that way."

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Jet Li, who starred in this year's indulgently violent Kiss of the Dragon, plays multiple martial arts warriors in the science fiction actioner The One. While his athletic talents are undeniable, he still fails to engage critics as an action hero. The movie doesn't score many points on any other level either.

The USCC's critic writes, "Director James Wong's shoddy sci-fi piece consists of indiscriminate killings and an obscurely developed narrative with stale martial-arts choreography and special effects derivative of superior films."

Paul Bicking (Preview) "Non-stop violence and obscenity-laced dialogue prevent recommending The One."

"The One isn't all bad," writes Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family). "It makes a clear distinction between good and evil, presents an engaging moral conundrum and validates marriage. Sadly, it's a black hole of foul language, brutality and … flimsy logic."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) admits that the film delivers "a rush of martial arts adrenaline," but adds, "it might as well be called Another One, joining, as it does, a growing list of all-too-average cheeseball action films."

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John Travolta plays one mad dad in Domestic Disturbance. His wife has divorced him and taken up with a cruel and unusual beau, played by Vince Vaughan, leaving her son in a dangerous place. Father and son team up against the abusive stepdad in an action thriller that's accused of audience abuse.

Mainstream critics held Disturbance up as an example of just how low major studios are sinking these days. Roger Ebert takes issue with the film's lenient rating. He calls it "a child-in-terror movie, in which a child is the eyewitness to a brutal murder and the incineration of the body. Then the kid sees his father hammered to within an inch of his life, his mother beaten until she has a miscarriage, and himself as the unwitting cause of an electrocution." Why does this film get a PG-13 rating, he asks, while cleaner, tamer, artful, and meaningful films like Amelie and WakingLife are rated R? Good question.

Religious press critics, however, gave the movie some credit for portraying an admirable father figure. "It's refreshing to see a good father in a movie," says Ted Baehr (Movieguide), but he determines that "too much of [the movie] is paint-by-numbers. Furthermore, the movie builds in the audience a strong desire for revenge, with the audience laughing and cheering at the movie when Rick gets his comeuppance, a very gruesome comeuppance at that."

Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) gives the film "big props for portraying a dad who is loving, communicative, involved, regretful of his mistakes, strong, bold and justice-seeking. But harsh language and violence make it a domestic disappointment for families. The characters are shallow; the writing is formulaic; the ending is rushed."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) acknowledges the film's formulaic story, and he agrees that characters make outrageously foolish decisions. But he concludes, "Competent direction … and an above-average cast is what keeps the movie afloat.

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies) says, "There are many irks with Domestic Disturbance for those who like things to fit together." He also faults "an excess of violence," profanity, and predictability.

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Holly McClure (The Orange County Register) calls it riveting, but is concerned that a child who dislikes his or her stepfather or stepmother might get bad ideas about "how to make life miserable for that stepparent."

John Adair (Preview) remarks, "The strong language makes [the film] even more disturbing."

The USCC's critic is the most lenient: "Though the run-of-the-mill narrative has its flaws, director Harold Becker's campy film keeps the action moving by relying on the endangered-child angle and a chilling music score."

Next week:Amelie—an enchanting, meaningful fantasy? Or just another big screen do-gooder like Forrest Gump and Pay It Forward? Also: David Mamet's Heist gives us burglars who talk real good.

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: K-Pax, 13 Ghosts, Riding in Cars With Boys, From Hell, Training Day, Bandits, and Serendipity.