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A Very Scary Business

Pixar has invested a lot in the new 'Monsters, Inc.' Will audiences care about its technical innovations? The grosses will tell.

October 28, 2001|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — John Lasseter is a passionate guy.

He gets worked up about telling stories and making movies and harnessing computers to make art. He's wild about animation and laughter and good jokes and not-so-good jokes and family entertainment and collaboration.

And on this day, the man described as the Walt Disney for the 21st century is really, really excited about Froot Loops. With marshmallow eyeballs. And a monster on the box. For a limited time only.

"Have you seen the Froot Loops? I'm a geek about these things." Lasseter flashes a big thumbs-up. Toys from his first three movies line the shelves of his office at Pixar Animation Studios, crowd the desk, fill the floor. Many more are on the way. And this time, there will be Froot Loops. "The colors are like our characters, so it's like green, purple and blue. With marshmallow eyeballs in there. It's great. I love the toys. I love all that stuff."

If it's merchandising, it must be a movie. And if it's a movie by the so far wildly successful Pixar, then there is serious money behind it, and there are serious expectations ahead. No one at Pixar is talking about just how much it cost to make and market "Monsters, Inc.," which opens Friday at a theater near you--if you happen to be anywhere in the United States of America.

But lots of people are talking about the expectations, wondering whether "Monsters, Inc." could possibly be as gripping as the "Toy Story" franchise, as beautiful as "A Bug's Life." And they're talking about the innovations; every Pixar movie rolls out complements of at least one technological breakthrough, and this one is no exception.

They're also talking about the competition. In the short term, it comes from a boy on a broomstick, when "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" opens Nov. 16. And, in the longer term, it comes from a big, green ogre and PDI/DreamWorks, the studio that brought him to life in the year's biggest-grossing movie of any kind, "Shrek." "Monsters" comes out at a pivotal time for the 15-year-old Pixar, whose three full-length, computer-animated feature films are among the 10 top-grossing animated pictures ever made. While Lasseter--described as Pixar's executive vice president of creative--had his hand in nearly every aspect of the new movie, this is the first Pixar effort that he did not direct.

To Lasseter, that's evidence of the studio's maturity. Two movies into a five-picture deal with Disney, the Bay Area company has swelled to 650 employees, at a time when other technology and entertainment companies are hurting. It is about to outgrow its year-old headquarters, and has a seasoned team of directors and other artists.

To investors and moviegoers alike, it's a hopeful sign that Pixar might finally step up production and aim for its ultimate goal of releasing more than one film every 18 months. But until "Monsters, Inc." is officially unveiled and other Pixar movies follow, it remains to be seen whether the studio has a deep enough talent pool to meet the high standard set by Lasseter.

Which means that the pressure is on for Pixar and its partner, Disney. Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, says there are always high expectations placed on the companies' major movies. But he acknowledges that it is different today. This is a big year for animation, with a crowded field and a first-ever Oscar for feature-length animated films at stake. "Falling on the heels of 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2' and 'A Bug's Life,' there's great anticipation for the next Disney/Pixar movie," Cook says. "It goes with the territory. As long as we continue to deliver, those expectations are well-founded."

For now, however, there is "Monsters, Inc.," five painstaking years in the making--more, if you count director Pete Docter's childhood, all those nights spent wondering whether it was a tentacle sticking out of his darkened closet or just another shirt sleeve waving in the breeze.

Docter, who was the second animator Lasseter hired at Pixar, joined the studio in 1990 and served as supervising animator on the original "Toy Story." He also helped write that movie. After "Toy Story" finished production, he was dispatched to develop what became "Monsters, Inc." It is his directorial debut.

In the world according to Pixar, there are a few home truths. Toys come to life when their owners leave the room. Inside every anthill and beneath every clover leaf exists an entire, teeming world, fraught with drama. And finally, as of Friday, comes the latest dictum: There are monsters in the closet, just waiting to scare children.

The point of "Monsters, Inc.," Docter says, is to explain why.

"It's their job," he says, "their business. They clock in. They clock out. They eat doughnuts. They're just workaday Joes scaring kids, and they do it for the 'Scream.' The monster world is powered by kids' screams."

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