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All hail Mike Wazowski: Built like a snot bubble with floppy feet, bad teeth, and one, just one, of Marty Feldman’s popped-out peepers, the lime-green wiseacre is not only the most visually engaging creature in Monsters, Inc.—yet another computer-animated triumph from the brilliant nerds at Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios—but also (sorry, Jiminy) the most charming sidekick in the history of Disney ‘toons. As the voice of Wazowski, Billy Crystal, although certainly a smug, preening jerk in human form, manages to give the impish critter the perfect vocal blend of foolish pride and weary self-deprecation. And just about everything that comes out of the one-eyed monster’s horizontal half-moon mouth is flat-out funny.

The kiddies will no doubt love Wazowski: He’s a world-class belcher, wears “wet-dog odorant,” and wallops himself in the crotch to get giggles. But the grown-ups should relate to him, really just another blue-collar grunt in a bustling company town, even more: He blatantly sucks up to his Jabbaesque office manager (“And how are you today, my tender oozing blossom?”), fumbles for a romantic line during a date (“I was just thinking of the first time I ever laid eye on you”), and tries so hard to take care of his big best buddy (“Come on, brush those teeth! Scary monsters don’t have plaque”), even though it’s quite obviously the other way around.

In fact, the high-low appeal of Wazowski is a prime example of how Pixar, the group that assembled Toy Story and can somehow make “all ages” not boring, is far superior to its main competition, the Shrek animators at DreamWorks. Shrek certainly has its moments, most notably Eddie Murphy as the one-liner-braying Donkey, but the blockbuster is, for the most part, a crude attempt at capturing Disney’s cartoon magic. Shrek’s animation is Sega-ready at best, and a good number of its jokes aim no higher than at the joys of bodily functions. (Sure, I’ll allow that flatulence is funny—but not umpteen times in the first 10 minutes.) Plus, the ogre-in-love fairy tale goes so far out of its loose-plot way to take potshots, deserved or not, at the House That Walt Built and head Mouseketeer Michael Eisner—remember Lord Farquaad (pronounced “fuckwad”)?—that its aftertaste is more bitter than sweet.

Ultimately, of course, the joke is on DreamWorks. Upping the ante on the art form—and just about the most fun you can have at the movies this season—Monsters, Inc. is absolutely loaded with stellar performances and groundbreaking animation. John Goodman lends his deep, gentle bear of a voice to Wazowski’s roommate and co-worker, James P. “Sulley” Sullivan, a sasquatchian presence in blue-purple fur. A master of the slumber party, Sulley is a nine-time Scarer of the Month at the flick’s titular company (motto: “We scare because we care”), which turns the screams of human children into energy to fuel the city of Monstropolis. When villain Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi at his smarmy best), a purple lizardy thingie with chameleonic tendencies, tries to cheat his way to the top, he inadvertently allows a human toddler to scamper into the monsters’ world. This, of course, is the no-no of all no-nos, a “kid-tastrophe” so to speak—you never, ever leave the closet door open behind you. It’s soon up to Sulley, a teddy bear at heart, and his gum-flapping chum to get the little girl home before the overeager Child Detection Agency, headless goons in yellow biohazard suits, can do away with her.

Along with being just a damn good time, Monsters, Inc. is technically flawless and oh-so-pretty. There’s rarely a harsh color to be seen here; pastels and muted solids dominate, and the textures are so smooth and soft—and seemingly real—that you want to reach out and touch them. The monsters, with their exaggerated, overabundant features—too many tentacles, too many claws, too many eyes (or not enough, in some cases)—are never more complicated than the stuffed and rubbery creatures filling a youngster’s toy chest. Yet mind-boggling attention is paid to each and every ghoulie’s shading, density, and movement.

Pixar has obviously learned from Toy Story that creating realistic humans, for their studios, anyway, is still years down the road. Accordingly, the little girl, with her brunette pigtails and wobbly walk—Sulley calls her “Boo” because she scares him more than he scares her; in her babbling babyspeak, she calls him “Kitty”—is drawn to wide-eyed, near-Japanimation proportions. That said, watch how Boo’s loose T-shirt moves independently of her body, how each hair on her head floats its own toussled way. And although the pace of the movie is action-packed enough to keep G-rated audiences from looking for Raisinets on the floor, director Pete Docter (taking over for usual Pixar helmsman John Lasseter) and his talented cohorts outdo themselves for the whiz-bang finale, in which Sulley and Wazowski ride a nausea-inducing roller coaster of closet doors—entering and exiting bedrooms all over the world—trying to find Boo’s home.

Besides the presence of Wazowski, there’s more than enough adult-sized stimulation throughout to keep parents properly glued down as well. When our heroes wind up in the Mount Everest home of the Abominable Snowman (John Ratzenberger), the Yeti presents a snack tray of yellow ice treats. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s lemon.” A particularly growly—and very much welcome—James Coburn voices the Monsters Inc.’s half-crab, half-blob CEO, Henry J. Waternoose. And the in-jokes, as is always the case with Pixar, are plenty: Wazowski takes his date to a sushi bar called Harry Hausen’s (Ray Harryhausen was the stop-motion visual-effects guru responsible for such groundbreaking flicks as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans), and a so-quick cameo from a certain Toy Story 2 star provides not only in-the-know chuckles but a sweet subtext to the closing scenes.

Monsters, Inc.’s chief competition when it opens this weekend will not be another movie in theaters but a movie in video stores. DreamWorks, instead of following the rules and releasing videos and DVDs on Tuesdays, has opted to release the home version of Shrek this Friday, the very same day Wazowski and Sulley hit the big screen. Oh well: If DreamWorks’ animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg wants to keep waging war with former boss Eisner, so be it. But let it be known that in the battle of green beasties, Disney’s animated monsters easily mash the competition. CP