When a chunk of intergalactic matter helps ruin what might have been Susan Murphy’s wedding day, we soon discover that the US government has been housing a group of legendary monsters in the dank confines of Area 51. Because of her transformation into a massive 49 foot 11 inch “Ginormica”, the newly monsterized Susan is soon locked up and befriended by fellow prisoners Dr. Cockroach (half-bug, half-mad scientist), the ape/fish hybrid The Missing Link, and the lovable, gelatinous Benzoate Ostylezene Bicarbonate (B.O.B. for short).
But the meteorite that helped instigate Susan’s transformation contained a mysterious element called quantonium, whose very existence helped awaken the evil and squid-like alien Gallaxhar from hibernation, and he naturally wants it for himself. The set-up is classic science-fiction, circa 1950s pulp film, and it’s not long before giant robots are invading earth and the military is helpless to stop them. With a plot ripped directly from infinitely superior Godzilla vs. Monthra (minus the two adorable miniature Japanese girls), the monsters are soon charged with defending earth against certain doom and promised freedom if successful. You better believe the main event is gonna be Monsters vs. Aliens!
Co-directed by Dreamworks veterans Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2) and Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), the latest Dreamworks Animation project is a strange combination of talent considering many consider the two films polar opposites on the quality stick. While the sense of pop-culture references and potty humor is on full display (can someone please explain to me how a gelatinous blob can have flatulence?), it’s the visuals and enormous promise of seeing these titans clash that hold the most interest here. Much has been made of Dreamworks new 3D rendering technology, which presumably helped guide the film’s direction and allowed for immediate 3D sequences to coincide the direction. For the most part, these moments are quite successful when viewing them with the appropriate headwear, but these enhancements seem to have come at the expense of plot and depth.
While there are plenty of good, solid laughs here, generally MvA seems to follow the Shark Tale-style of characterization and plot, with voice actors chosen more for their recognizable names than appropriateness to character. Not helping is how thinly realized any of them (barring Susan/Ginormica) are written or portrayed. Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, more Black Adder than House), The Missing Link (Will Arnett), and B.O.B the Blob (Seth Rogan) do fine work, but any of their characters could have easily been voiced by working animation voice actors and lose nothing in the process. Reese Witherspoon (Susan) is the most successful simply because so much time is spent on her character’s background and personal life.
True to form, the rest of the movie is populated with serviceable vocal talent, primarily from television and used as effectively as you might expect. Kiefer Sutherland (General W.R. Monger) does his best R. Lee Ermy impression as the – you guessed it – war mongering General charged with capturing and instructing his monster troupe. Stephen Colbert has a lot of fun playing the US President, and frankly, we don’t see his character nearly as much as we should. On the opposite scale, Rainn Wilson is almost completely wasted with his buffoonish and completely non-threatening villain Gallaxhar, a character whose design appears to have been rushed and bears a striking resemblance to The Missing Link.
But the unimaginative design isn’t limited to Gallaxhar or any of the heroes; other than some impressive 3D staging and set-pieces, the artistic style is uniformly lifted from better films, and I lost count trying to guess the design influences on some of these characters. For me, the most brilliant design was Colbert’s President, whose face is such an exaggeration of 50s stereotype it seems directly lifted from classic Mad Magazine caricatures. The large (but silent) Insectosaurus is also fun to watch, even though he looks almost identical to that cute Hamster in last year’s Disney film Bolt. The rest of the film seems happy rolling along with safe designs and bland personalities, which by itself isn’t a bad thing given the silly science-fiction motif and plot.
Monsters vs. Aliens is a visually interesting event film that’s fun to watch, but doesn’t offer much outside of an excuse to wear 3D goggles (and presumably allow theaters to charge a premium) and ogle the technology. It’s a decidedly second-rate cartoon for Dreamworks Animation, which seems awfully content to stagger their better films (Kung Fu Panda) with lesser fare (Shark Tale). Despite its many flaws, MvA manages to fall somewhere in the middle and because of that, is still recommended to fans of stylized animation and decent comedy. I imagine the movie will lose much of its appeal upon its inevitable arrival on home video, where the lack of ginormous screens and 3D technology might rob the visuals of their most dynamic appeal, leaving the film to stand on its meager plot and bland characters.