With its elegant 3D visuals and sly references to B-movies of the past, Monsters vs. Aliens doesn't look like your run of the mill CGI-animated kids movie. But thanks to some brilliant combination of funny screenwriters with a great sense of silliness, the movie doesn't feel remotely familiar either. The typical DreamWorks reliance on pop culture jokes and lowbrow humor has been mostly ditched here, in favor of a kind of perfect nonsense that appeals to kids and adults simultaneously.
Below are five reasons that Monsters vs. Aliens is funnier than any of this year's other comedies, and definitely funnier than most recent animated movies (sorry, Wall-E). I went in expecting something generic, and came out genuinely thrilled by what I'd seen, marveling at how such a giant production managed to get the tiny details of the comedy just right. I promise you won't be disappointed.
1. The voice cast Every animated movie not made by Pixar seems required to stuff the voice cast with celebrities, assuming that parents will enjoy hearing Steve Carell's voice even if they're totally bored by the movie. But the casting in Monsters vs. Aliens is uncannily spot-on, starting with Stephen Colbert as the haughty President and trickling down to a gruff Kiefer Sutherland doing his best George C. Scott as the military guardian of the monsters. But one person in particular deserves his own special mention...
2. Seth Rogen as B.O.B. Normally if you put Will Arnett, Hugh Laurie and Seth Rogen in a room together to figure out who's funniest, I'd expect Rogen to lose-- he's never shown the kind of sharp wit and subtlety that you figure Arnett and Laurie would use to tear each other apart. But as the enthusiastic, naive and constantly hungry B.O.B., Rogen and his unmistakable laugh steal nearly every scene. It's like the animation liberated him from a sense of hip detachment, and Rogen gets to be the excitable kid we've always seen in him, deep down.
3. The childish silliness that grown-ups will love. One of the biggest laughs that Monsters vs. Aliens got from the kids in my screening audience was when a government employee is going into a top-secret lab, and has to scan his fingerprint, eye, chin, both elbows... and his butt. Kids love butt jokes. But grown-ups love butt jokes too, especially when part of a series like that, getting increasingly silly until the inevitable butt joke comes in. Or if you don't like that, how about the slightly subversive gag of the identical red buttons, one setting off all the global nuclear weapons, the other making the President a latte? Silly, over-the-top, but satisfying on every level. And speaking of that slight jump into satire...
4. The Dr. Strangelove connection. Yeah, I know, I said the movie had dispensed with the pop culture gags. But does it really count when the most obvious reference is to a cynical 1960s comedy classic? Most of the scenes with he President and his staff trying to figure out the alien scourge take place in a giant underground bunker, very deliberately resembling the war room set of Dr. Strangelove. And most of the funniest lines in that movie-- "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"; all the precious bodily fluids-- would be right at home in Monsters vs. Aliens, which takes that same nose-thumbing approach to its high-powered characters and dials down the satire.
5. The sight gags. You will laugh when you see the evil alien pour Pepto-Bismol-pink tea into his ear. Or when one of Susan's relatives-to-be demonstrates her genetically inherited short thumb. They're all jokes that could be easy, thrown away for a cheap laugh, but Monsters vs. Aliens makes nearly all of them pay off with crack comic timing. And even when they rely twice-- twice!-- on a silly dance number joke, it pays off anyway in sheer likability.
Monsters vs. Aliens isn't a perfect movie, and it's too cobbled-together from other movies (lifting its finale directly from The Wizard of Oz, even) to stand up next to comedy classics. But its biggest rewards are in its sense of humor, the way it abandons sentimentality and easy rim shots for some actual character-driven comedy. DreamWorks is very, very slowly developing its own animated niche away from Pixar, and Monsters vs. Aliens is another step in a really positive direction.