In this new film from DreamWorks, cartoons save the planet.
The bratty younger cousins to Pixar’s stable of geniuses, the folks at DreamWorks Animation Studios will never be accused of aiming particularly high. Best known for the increasingly annoying Shrek series, they tend to specialize in innocuous time-wasters peppered with insidery pop culture references that sail over children’s heads, but at least allow parents to feel slightly less burned about springing for the price of a matinee and concessions.
Monsters vs. Aliens is a bit of a departure for DreamWorks, in that its humor is less reliant on ephemeral fads. It’s not great—but it’s not bad—and it’s the first flick I’ve seen from these people that won’t seem dated by the time it hits home video.
Reese Witherspoon lends her pipes to Susan, an unlucky young bride who suffers the misfortune of being hit by a meteorite on her wedding day. Her walk down the aisle is sadly interrupted by a strange chemical reaction that causes her to grow several stories tall. (The groom, voiced by Paul Rudd, is obviously not amused.)
Before the honeymoon, Susan is quickly whisked away to a secret government facility buried deep beneath Area 51. There General W. R. Monger (get it?) keeps a corral of monsters and mutants locked away from the prying eyes of the tabloid media.
Hugh Laurie plays the world’s smartest cockroach, which I believe he also does on House. Will Arnett vamps it up as a lounge lizard who actually happens to be a lizard, and Seth Rogen is somewhat typecast as a loutish, brainless blob. The product of a freak genetic accident involving ranch dressing, Rogen’s one-eyed blue globule gets the lion’s share of the one-liners, especially when he’s unable to contain his amorous feelings for Jell-O.
But when a megalomaniacal purple alien named Gallaxhar decides to destroy planet Earth, this motley crew turns out to be our last line of defense against his invasion.
Is setting a bunch of monsters loose to take on these aliens really a wise idea for national security? Well, what do you expect when Stephen Colbert is playing the president?
Of course this is all very silly stuff. But there’s a pleasingly retro vibe to Monsters vs. Aliens that’s quite in keeping with its 1950s B-movie title. Pointedly set in Modesto, Calif. (hometown of George Lucas and the setting for American Graffiti), it might as well be a period piece—full of skinny ties, Brylcreamed hairdos and backyard barbecues—with the creature designs and sets looking like a vision of the future that somebody might have had a long time ago.
Unlike the Shrek films and their everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to anachronisms, Monsters vs. Aliens limits its riffs to the genre of science fiction films—particularly those produced by studio boss Steven Spielberg. My favorite gag arrives when Colbert’s president attempts to make first contact with the alien spaceship. Instead of introducing himself, he whips out a keyboard and plinks the theme to Close Encounters. (A snatch of music from E.T. turns up at a pivotal moment, too.)
But all kids’ films must teach lessons of empowerment, so there’s also the matter of Susan learning to accept and appreciate her gigantic stature. She realizes that there’s more to life than playing doting wife to Rudd’s narcissistic TV weatherman, but I guess after you’ve foiled an intergalactic menace by tearing apart the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s hard to get excited about moving to Fresno.
As is par for the course with animated flicks these days, Monsters vs. Aliens is being released in several formats. If possible, I’d recommend checking out the IMAX 3-D presentation, which is fairly stunning. There’s one early instance of the filmmakers obtrusively tossing something in your face to show off the 3-D, but otherwise it’s used as just another storytelling tool.