Review: Monsters vs. Aliens

DreamWorks Animation has created a niche all their own; great looking, high-concept computer animated films with about as much thematic depth as an installment of “Josey and the Pussycats.” It’s as if Pixar created DreamWorks Animation just to make themselves look good.

Monsters vs. Aliens” has an awfully great title going for it – who doesn’t want to see that? – but is merely adequate in the execution. Considering the potential of the idea and that there are five credited screenwriters, you would expect a memorable sequence or two and a few clever characters, but lacking in every story element is an inspired imagination.

Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is about to get married when she’s hit by meteor. The good news is that she’s not hurt, the bad news is that she grows to be about fifty stories tall and is promptly captured by the military and imprisoned in Area 51, where all “monsters” are locked away to keep the public from panicking. The warden is the oh-so cleverly named General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), and he explains to Susan, code name Ginormica, that she will never see the light of day again.

Yes, another film aimed at your kids that paints the military as oppressive, robotic and reactionary.

Locked up with her are other monsters created by various experiments and industrial accidents. There’s Dr. Cockroach Ph.D (Hugh Laurie), a man-sized roach; the victim of his own experiment, B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) a gelatinous blob with no brain and eager to prove it, The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a sort of lizardy, Creature From the Black Lagoon thing, and a giant, lumbering moth who’s even bigger than Ginormica.

The plot turns when Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), an alien being with multiple eyes and tentacles, sends a giant alien robot to conquer Earth on his behalf. When the military is unable to pulverize it, the “monsters” are offered their freedom in exchange for stopping it. Hence the title, “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

With animation anything is possible, so how things look is nowhere near as important as what you do with them. In other words, choreography. The idea of staging a massive battle between a giant alien robot and a giant girl in the city of San Francisco isn’t enough. What matters is how the battle is staged. The potential of such a thing has you leaning forward in your chair, but “busy” isn’t the same as inventive and fun and soon you sit back numbed by hollow franticness of it all.

Ratatouille” (2007) used an everyday kitchen to create a ridiculously entertaining set-piece, and who can ever forget Dash experiencing the pure joy of discovering the vast limits of his powers as he out-witted the bad guys and ran over water in “The Incredibles” (2004)? There’s just nothing like that here. Nothing even close. Certainly everything looks great, but what’s done with all this great looking stuff is strictly in the Saturday morning cartoon league. As are the themes and “lessons learned” which run the gamut of A to A.5: Female empowerment, don’t judge a book by its cover, friendship, and yawn. There are thirty-minute sitcom episodes more emotionally satisfying and certainly funnier.

The laughs are scattered, to say the least. There’s a lot of toilet humor, a few too many self-referential nods to DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg, and a lack of chemistry between the characters that frequently gives the antics a forced feel.

At around 90 minutes, the story is pretty well paced and will probably make a great babysitter on DVD. The little ones will like it, but aren’t likely to remember much because like most everything DreamWorks Animated, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is more frantic than fun and more silly than satisfying.

For the record, my planned 3D screening was sold out, so what I saw was good old 2D. To the film’s credit, there’s no obvious 3D moments (things flying in your face) that make the lack of 3D obvious. To be honest, I’m not a big 3D guy anyway. The effects tend to take me out of the story so I doubt missing it in “Glorious 3D” colored my opinion one way or the other.


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