"We need everything we can do to divert us and make us feel better in whatever form that is," Crystal told reporters recently. "People really want to let loose. ... You look at what Mr. (Bob) Hope did for 50 years entertaining the troops ... and you look at people walking around just looking like we're all dazed, and if you tell just one joke and people laugh, just for a split second, you don't think about potentially what's happening here. I think it's important ..."
In the G-rated Disney/Pixar film, "Monsters, Inc." is the largest scream-processing factory in the monster world, where the collected cries of human children is the main power source.
The story is about how Sulley, the top "kid scarer" (voiced by John Goodman of TV's "Roseanne,") finds his career in jeopardy and his life in chaos when a little girl follows him into the monster world.
Crystal provides the voice for Mike, a feisty, one-eyed, green "scare assistant" to big, fuzzy blue Sulley. Steve Buscemi ("Domestic Disturbance," "Fargo") plays a cunning competitor who will stop at nothing to oust Sulley from his top-dog position at MI and James Coburn ("The Magnificent Seven") plays the crab-like CEO of MI.
"I thought the concept of this story was so extraordinary because I was a scared kid, and I have kids and I have to explain scary stuff to them," said the star of "When Harry Met Sally ..." and "City Slickers."
"And I've always been fascinated by fear and how it motivates us and our imaginations, so this story hit on all of those things. I just thought the concept of it was just astounding and the monsters working in the (company). I can just visualize ... I can just see it. But I loved this character, and that was just it," he added.
Although the idea of being afraid of what is different from us seems a particularly relevant concept in light of the events of Sept. 11, Crystal pointed out that he began production on the movie almost two years ago. He emphasized that the themes addressed in the movie -- such as prejudice, fear and friendship -- are ones that children and adults can relate to at any time.
"This one is forever. It has great beauty to it," said the frequent host of the Academy Awards telecast. "The message was so great and the story-line was so phenomenal."
One of the challenges of starring in a computer-generated movie, however, was having to act out all of your funny, crazy or touching scenes by yourself, since everyone's part was recorded separately as part of the animation process, Crystal said.
"I spoke to Tom Hanks (the star of Disney/Pixar's animated classics 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2') and he said, 'Oh, it's really tough. It's so lonely. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do because you're working alone.' So, I did the first session, and I didn't like it. (Mike) is a very high-energy guy, and I was talking to myself. But I was answering lines from the script, but the other actor wasn't there. One of the other writers was reading me John's lines. Now, with all do respect to this man, he's a nice man, but he's not John Goodman. So, I said, 'I can't do this without him.' I said, 'Could you give me (a writer) that's a little more inquisitive ...?'
"Then John came in, and it was like gold. It was natural ... in a situation like this where we're together for 95 percent of the movie, that's why I think the movie ... first of all, the movie, I love it, but I think the acting in it's so good because we're together," he explained.
He continued: "What's really great was the level of sophistication and artistry of the animators is so great that you really give a performance. You don't give a voice-over performance; you give an acting performance. There are moments in this movie that John has when he looks at the monitor and sees his face snarling and the little girl crying and her reaction ... and his eyework. They videotape us while we're doing (the voices)... They capture John Goodman in that face that if John was giving that performance as an actor in a movie, he'd break your heart. They are able to get emotion out of the face, the glisten of an eye at just the right moment."
Asked to describe his character's relationship to Goodman's, Crystal affected Mike's voice and said: "What I do is I make sure that (Sulley's) ready. That he's fit. That he's trim. You never seen anybody that's built like this guy. This guy's unbelievable. So when he's ready to go through the door to scare the kid, that he's at the top of his game. That his teeth are honed. That they are sharp, and they glisten in the light 'cause that's a big thing. That he has a nice bit of mucous coming out of his nose because that's scary, too, and that his breath is really bad, so that when he leaves there is an aftertaste. A bitter aftertaste. So when a kid screams and a parent says, 'It's not true. There's no monsters,' he can smell and the next time (the kid) can be scared that Sulley's coming through the door (to get him)."
In addition to promoting "Monsters Inc.," Crystal is getting ready to start shooting two other projects -- "Analyze That," the sequel to the hit mob comedy "Analyze This," which he hopes to start filming in February or March of next year, and a re-make of "The In-Laws," co-starring Michael Douglas, which has been held up since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It was postponed," Crystal admitted. "We had a start date. They were re-writing some stuff, but I was going to do it. It was supposed to start Nov. 17, and there was a big World Trade Center scene with terrorists -- funny, but the whole story was about that, so it had to be changed."
Asked if he was looking forward to reprising his role as a mobster's psychiatrist in "Analyze That," Crystal replied: "Well, Bob (De Niro) and I and Harold (Ramis) have talked about a way to do it, and we think there's another story in these guys. I wasn't rushing to do it until we figured out something that could be a lot of fun. People loved the movie, and it did really well, and it was a dream to work with Bob ... all of that felt very complete. Storywise, I felt they were done. I felt they that they were both in a better place. (De Niro's character) went off to prison for a little while, I was a better psychiatrist -- or one that got renewed in my work -- and that was it, but maybe there's another story in them. "
"Monsters Inc." opens Friday.