Groundbreaking computer-animation house Pixar has created another wondrous world in Monsters, Inc., their fourth consecutive blockbuster for Walt Disney Pictures. In fact, the world of Monsters, Inc. is even more spectacular than the ankle-high community of toys in Toy Story and the miniscule subculture of A Bug's Life. This time, the Pixar gang have given themselves license to create an utterly surreal alternative universe peopled by grotesque but lovable creatures whose very existence depends on their ability to elicit screams from human children. It's an original and zany conceit that director Pete Docter and his crew pull off with imagination, charm and wit.

Monsters, Inc. is set in the town of Monstropolis, dominated by a giant factory where champion monsters can enter doorways to the human world and collect the frightened sounds of children as their main energy source. The company's top earner is James P. Sullivan, or "Sulley," a green and purple bearlike hulk, assisted by Mike Wazowski, a lime-colored and shaped creature with one huge eye. Ironically, the monsters' chief fear is actual physical contact with their tiny victims and the danger of contamination. The movie's rather simple narrative follows what happens when a little girl named Boo, who doesn't know any better, enters the monster world and proves naggingly difficult to return.

Unlike Toy Story and A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc. doesn't have a large gallery of zany supporting characters, but it almost makes up for that deficit with the lively rapport of voice actors John Goodman and Billy Crystal. Goodman, something of a hulk in real life, gives the movie its heart as Sulley evolves from panic to protectiveness in his relationship with Boo; the animators also supply some priceless reactions for Sulley when he fears the little girl has been mashed up in a trash compacter. Crystal's comic shtick, meanwhile, is the perfect match for the odd-looking but curiously brash Mike. This viewer was also charmed by the animators' portrayal of Boo, a very realistic pre-verbal tot voiced by Mary Gibbs, the now five-year-old daughter of Pixar story artist Rob Gibbs.

Every animated tale needs a villain, and what better bad guy than Steve Buscemi as the sleazy lizard-like creature who is Sulley's main rival? The femme fatale slot is filled by Jennifer Tilly, as the company receptionist whose pigtails are serpents. And veteran James Coburn supplies the booming voice for the multi-eyed, crablike CEO of Monsters, Inc., Henry J. Waternoose.

Though the story is elemental, the design of Monsters, Inc. is anything but. Pixar has developed its densest and most dazzling visual palette to date, a complete parallel cityscape with corner "grosserys" and "Stalk" and "Don't Stalk" signs. (In an apt tribute to an animation pioneer, there's even a nightclub called Harryhausen's.) The movie's pi'ce de rsistance is its breathless climax, a dizzying chase along and through a seemingly endless array of doors leading to various human bedrooms--the kind of elaborately scaled set-piece that can only be accomplished through computer animation.

Monsters, Inc. is so imaginative in concept and execution, it's impossible to predict where the artists at Pixar will go from here. But wherever they land, audiences will surely follow.

--Kevin Lally