For a very brief moment there, DreamWorks had Pixar on the ropes. Sure, Pixar's Wall-E was an artistically masterful, humanely intelligent mash-up of sci-fi parable and soulful Little Tramp comedy, but let's be honest, DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda totally owned the kids' computer animation corner last summer. It wasn't a better film, but it was a lot more fun, and surprisingly gorgeous to look at. Given the pop-culture-laden dreck DreamWorks had been churning out (ahem, A Shark's Tale), this homage to chop-socky action movies was one wonderful wonton.
DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens doesn't have the soul, energy or wit of Kung Fu Panda (or any of the Pixar flicks for that matter), but with its eye-popping animation and Seth Rogan putting in overtime to deliver the yucks as an indestructible gelatinous blue blob, it's a pretty good time ... if you see it, and this is important, in 3-D.
Without the giddy in-your-face effects, Monsters vs. Aliens is just a predictably lightweight story with a couple of laughs, some rote action scenes and a nostalgia for '50s-era monster movies. Heck, it even wastes Stephen Colbert as its Strangelovian president. I mean — come on! — the guy's funny. He shouldn't be forced to deliver a lame-ass pop-culture joke that requires oldsters to recognize the theme to both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Beverly Hills Cop.
The story, such as it is, centers on Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), who's struck by a meteor on her wedding day and mutates into a 50-foot bridezilla. Quarantined by the government and dubbed Ginormica, she's recruited to defend the Earth from a giant alien robot. Teamed with a quartet of monsters — a reptilian "missing link" (Will Arnett), a Mothra-sized grub, a cockroach-headed scientist (Hugh Laurie) and Rogan's dimwitted blob — Susan takes on Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), an intergalactic four-eyed blowhard who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants.
The jokes and action come frequently enough to entertain, with Rogan doing most of the comic heavy lifting (his brain-dead one-liners are a real highlight). The vocal work from the other stars makes up for underdeveloped writing (the Missing Link's role in all of this is what again?), and Witherspoon makes us care about a pretty boring character.
What should have been fresh and exciting conceptually — there's a lot of material to exploit — ends up feeling familiar. Directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and their half-dozen screenwriters (always a bad sign) failed to create a unique universe for their characters to inhabit, plopping them in the boring, old real world when some ironic send-up of '50s Americana would've worked better. It's not a problem audiences will recognize, but it underlies the filmmakers' pedestrian approach to their material.
The big bummer is that Monsters vs. Aliens fails to live up to its own premise. There's very little monster-on-alien action, and what there is doesn't come within hailing distance of Kung Fu Panda or, more appropriately, Pixar's The Incredibles.
Those two films, in particular, make for a good side-by-side comparison, since both feature heroes battling a giant robot. But where The Incredibles delivered a breathtaking, perfectly paced free-for-all that magnified the personalities of its characters, Monsters vs. Aliens relies on technology to cover a shortage of ideas and direction. The animators impress with cockeyed angles and zooming perspectives, making brilliant use of 3D technology. There's a jaw-dropping spectacle to the thing that comes into its full glory with the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, the movie is unable to wring any tension, character or drama from its action. It's visual "wow" in service of narrative "blah" — with only the third dimension to cover its ass.
The upshot is this: Monsters vs. Aliens makes for a fabulous rollercoaster ride in a 3D-capable theater, so enjoy the hell out of it. But, four months from now, don't be surprised if the kids complain that the DVD version just doesn't seem all that fun.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].