by Mel Valentin
Directed by Rob Letterman ("Shark Tale") and Conrad Vernon ("Shrek 2"), "Monsters vs. Aliens," DreamWorks Animation’s latest computer animated film, is a family-oriented, science fiction-action-comedy. A parody of science fiction B-movies made in the 1950s (updated, of course, for contemporary audiences), "Monsters vs. Aliens" offers an abundance of primary-colored visual pleasures (e.g., sight gags, character designs, set pieces) mixed in with the pop culture references, low-brow, juvenile humor, and in-jokes that have defined, for better or for worse (often for worse), DreamWorks Animation’s output since the release of "Shrek" eight years ago. Like "Kung Fu Panda," "Monsters vs. Aliens" is an improvement over DreamWorks Animation’s previous sub-par efforts, but remains several steps behind Pixar-level animation.On her wedding day, a “quantonium”-infused meteorite falls from the sky and hits Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon). At her wedding to Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd), a local weatherman making the move from a television station in Modesto to a larger one in Fresno, Susan suffers an uncontrollable growth spurt into a fifty-foot woman. Seconds later, a U.S. assault team captures Susan and transports her to a super-secret underground facility run by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland). Renamed “Ginormica,” Susan meets the other monsters, B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a sentient, gelatinous mass who owes his existence to the unintended effects of a food experiment, Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), a man-sized talking cockroach and mad scientist, the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a 20,000 year-old half-primate, half-amphibian found in a block of ice fifty years ago, and Insectosaurus, an irradiated 300-foot tall grub. Just when all hope for seeing the outside world again seems lost, an alien conqueror from a distant galaxy, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), sends a giant robot probe to Earth to find and return the quantonium, even if it means extracting it from Susan. At General Monger’s suggestion, the U.S. president, Hathaway (Stephen Colbert), agrees to grant the monsters their freedom in exchange for defending the Earth from Gallaxhar’s alien robot.
"If you've seen one DreamWorks Animation effort, you've seen them all."
Letterman and Vernon relied heavily on 50s- and 60s-era low-budget science-fiction films. Attack of the 50-Foot Woman inspired the creation of Susan/Ginormica. B.O.B. converts the gelatinous, murderous mass from The Blob into a none-too-bright, wisecracking, sentient blue glob. Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. riffs on the teleportation technology-tampering scientist and central character in The Fly. The Creature From the Black Lagoon influence The Missing Link’s his physical appearance, if not his personality. Insectosaurus references Toho Studios’ mainstay Mothra, one of Godzilla’s early opponents. True to his name, General W.R. Monger’s origins can be traced to any number of 50s-era, testosterone-fuelled, trigger-fingered military men. Gallaxhar, the bigheaded, bug-eyed, squid-like alien in Monsters vs. Aliens, would fit right in the Invasion of the Saucer Men. Monsters vs. Aliens has a distinctly anarchic flavor that will remind moviegoers of Tim Burton’s science fiction parody Mars Attacks!. The monsters-as-heroes bit is reminiscent of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers.
Thematically, Monsters vs. Aliens turns on the superhero theme or message made famous in the first Spider-Man film, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but switches it up for Susan’s character arc to “With great power comes self- or female-empowerment.” When we first meet Susan, she defines herself by her impending marriage to the self-interested Derek Dietl. When the meteorite strikes, she can only think of returning to her former life with Dietl. It’s not until her encounter with the alien robot that she discovers she likes saving the world and, thus, being a superhero, an inner and outer journey similar to countless superheroes from countless comic book properties. She discovers, of course, that self-empowerment comes at a cost, but, as Monsters vs. Aliens makes clear, becoming a superhero is well worth the cost. None of the other monsters get a recognizable character arc (outside of learning to work together for the greater good), but that’s something Katzenberg and his animators can exploit in the sequel to Monsters vs. Aliens.
With the exception of Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks Animation’s output has been weak on character- or world-building, character designs, storylines, set pieces, and animation. Monsters vs. Aliens suffers from all but one of those problems: the animation has improved considerably, from the character designs (with one or two exceptions), world building, to the set pieces, one in and around San Francisco and the other on Gallaxhar’s massive spaceship. Vernon and Letterman knew their audience well: It's practically impossible to go wrong with giant robot ruin (or giant robot destruction or giant robot mayhem, take your pick) and, at least in that respect, they succeeded in providing moviegoers with pure, awe-inspiring spectacle. Oddly enough, Vernon and Letterman didn’t follow the “Rule of Three” (three set pieces, minimum, per animated film) and were content with only two (the second lasts more than 20 minutes, though).
If Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, is to be believed, the future is now, and it's in 3-D. As the press kit repeatedly point out, Monsters vs. Aliens is the first computer animated film conceived, shot, and edited in 3-D. DreamWorks Animation partnered with Intel on proprietary 3-D software, Intru3D, which they’ve used on Monsters vs. Aliens and on future film projects. Although Monsters vs. Aliens contains several sight gags that involving projecting objects at the audience, including one that pays homage to 1953’s House of Wax, the emphasis was on creating multi-plane depth and, at least in that respect, Monsters vs. Aliens creates the immersive moviegoing experience that’s become the Holy Grail for DreamWorks Animation.
Unfortunately, the comparisons between DreamWorks Animation and Pixar won’t stop with Monsters vs. Aliens, even with the addition of 3-D to sweeten the moviegoing experience. Due to the additional costs involved with 3-D computer animation (an extra $15 million per Katzenberg), Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation will add a surcharge on every movie ticket to Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D. Don’t expect this t change: 3-D will be the baseline standard for everything DreamWorks Animation makes going forward. Pixar might not be far behind: beginning with their next release, Up!, Pixar’s animated films will be conceived, shot, and projected in 3-D, but it’s unclear whether Disney, Pixar’s parent company, will tack on a surcharge for the 3-D experience.Despite its weaknesses, "Monster vs. Aliens" will probably whet your appetite for giant robot action. Luckily, "Terminator: Salvation" and "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" will both provide enough robot mayhem to satisfy even the most diehard fans. Now if only Michael Bay can be convinced to shoot "Transformers 3" in 3-D, then all, or almost all, would be right with the world (i.e., as defined by movie-obsessed fans, bloggers, and maybe a critic or two).
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originally posted: 03/27/09 09:00:00