Monsters vs. Aliens

We hold some truths to be self-evident, and (comedic 1-2-3 set-ups aside) I've an inkling one involves Dreamworks Animation's inability to connect all the dots. Except for the Wallace & Gromit feature and, by extension, Flushed Away (both Aardman Animations productions), I haven't been bowled over by anything the studio has released. (OK, I never saw Kung Fu Panda, and I've taken it on the chin for that.) I had the highest of hopes for Monsters vs. Aliens; hopes higher and taller than Susan/Ginormica. Inevitably, they only had that much further to fall, and while the crash didn't bury them, they didn't bounce as high as I'd have liked. That said, it's a polished gag-fest that had me laughing often, which is more than I can say for Schindler's List, and that won an Oscar. The interesting part of the premise: in the 1950s the government captured and concealed a few scientific anomalies found terrorizing the country, callously dubbed "monsters." (Problem: only four monsters ever existed, apparently, and all in the same timeframe.) Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) is half-fly, half-man, all genius. B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is an absorbent goo-ball. The Missing Link (Will Arnett) is an ego-touting lizard from a lagoon of questionable color. There's also a gigantic grub called Insectosaurus. The monsters are watched over by General W. R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland). These guys are the best parts of the movie, as if the name-dropping didn't imply this. Laurie is simply maniacal, bouncing between mad scientist and put-upon savant. Where's Stephen Fry when you need (want) him? Rogen plays to his strengths as a giggling quasi-simpleton. B.O.B.'s adorable animation and Rogen's gruff musings complement one another unpredictably. As for the Missing Link, I think the real Will Arnett should have just been super-imposed into the film. No one's mistaking him for Olivier, but he easily gives funnier line readings than almost anyone in Hollywood. The gravel-voiced Sutherland, whom I mistook for Charles Napier for at least 20 minutes, is just as excellent as his counterparts. He rules things like R. Lee Ermey after an eightball and a few wine coolers.

The less enjoyable section of the story is, of course, the main section of the story. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is engaged to shallow weather-guy Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd). On their wedding day, Derek tells Susan a much-lauded Paris honeymoon will be replaced with a move to Fresno so he can take a position as a news anchor. While lamenting his decision, Susan is hit by a large meteorite containing quantonium. How she doesn’t die is anyone's guess, but she doesn’t get off scot-free. The substance makes her grow 10 times her height, right before vows are due to be exchanged! The film's first 10 minutes are kind of a snorefest, admittedly, but things pick up once Susan is taken to the monster-containment facility, where she meets her fellow creatures. She wants to escape, but she can't. Enter conflict, which comes in the shape of Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), a mildly evil alien on the hunt for quantonium, the most powerful substance in the universe. That this is a cartoon paying homage to sci-fi cheese-ums from the Golden Age of cinema is why I refrain from bitching about the simplistic liberties taken throughout. I understand what fun is.

In a particularly ignorant ploy, Gallaxhar sends down a huge, one-eyed robot to stand ground until someone provokes him. In this case, it's the army, led by none other than the President of the United States himself, Stephen Colbert. No parentheses for him. Colbert 2012! He antagonizes the robot, spoofing Close Encounters, and throws down a Beverly Hills Cop reference, thus leaving no stone unturned. The robot leaves his post and begins wreaking some havoc across San Francisco. So there's monsters, aliens, robots, zombies, werewolves, Sookie Stackhouse, and a kitchen sink. General Monger has a solution, one that would render his facility moot if it were any different. The monsters will take on the robot! In exchange for their freedom! And so they do, in one giant, action-packed sequence that has great B.O.B gags, cars used as roller skates, and the almost-destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a seriously well-paced and gorgeously animated set-piece, saying nothing of the lush score, which hits at least a dozen crescendos. I'm not certain how the animators justified the hundreds of people who would have perished in such an event, but I'm guessing everybody survived by the skin of their teeth. Great scene.

The movie gets boring again for a while as Susan is blindsided (really?) by Derek's lack of enthusiasm due to her large size. He's only interested in his career, and she's heartbroken by it. The city isn't exactly looking at the monsters as superheroes, either. Looks like there's redemption to be had, and thank God, because there's still a half a movie left. From here, things get formulaic. Galaxxhar takes matters into his own hands and comes down to Earth. The government brainstorms. (There's no fighting in the war room!) The monsters want in. Galaxxhar kidnaps Susan for her quantonium. More gags, more vivid animation, more let-downs anytime a human other than Monger appears on screen. I'll give you the smallest of hints as to what the climax consists of: it kind of sounds like mobsters versus gilligans.

Let me cut to the heart of this thing now. It doesn't have a heart. It tries to have a heart, thus the jaded lover who gets jilted for her man's material desires. Apparently Derek never masturbated to Daryl Hannah in Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. After falling in love with her in Freeway, I've taken only a passing interest in Reese Witherspoon's work, and she's clearly not in her element here. Granted, I don't know who could have made a bigger difference. Susan as a character is either whining with self-pity or jet-set with self-confidence. As unreal as a 3,000-year-old baritone-voiced lizard is, he's loads more relatable. On the opposite end, despite the above-par work by Rainn Wilson, the character of Galaxxhar is pretty unconvincing. A lone alien needs the universe's most powerful substance to do what? Well, to clone himself, as shown here, but why? We get no idea that the guy has anything other than narcissism fueling his motives. There was talk in the commentary of a story pitched where Galaxxhar's spaceship is a huge S.U.V, and his purpose would be to steal the Earth's oil supply, which in turn would only fuel his ship for two days, taking him to the next oil-bearing planet. That's an amusing, if also short-sighted, idea, but at least its logic is circular.

I can't finish without talking up the animation some more. This is by far the best looking thing I've seen Dreamworks Animation put out, and I only saw the 2-D version, which may have been to my advantage. The color scheme is illuminating, and there is always something going on within the frame. I don't care for the way some humans have turnip heads, but I'll forgive that because the non-humans are flawless. The voice cast is...out of this world. Ahem. There are small bits from Amy Poehler, Jeffrey Tambor, John Krasinski, Renee Zelleweger, and Ed Helms, not to mention all of the talented non-marquee names that make up the rest of the cast. They made the plentiful gags work wonders, but don't really ground the film. Guess I'll check out Kung Fu Panda now. I bought the two-disc set with the supplemental animated feature, B.O.B.'s Big Break. Doesn't anyone use the word cartoon anymore? The 13-minute short takes place in the late 1960s and focuses on an escape attempt centering on a failed experiment by Dr. Cockroach that grants B.O.B. mind-reading abilities. It's shown in 3-D and comes with four pairs of the red/green glasses. I liked it. It was cute, it looked good, and it was worth the five extra dollars, I suppose.

The Monsters vs. Aliens disc promises "Ginormous" extras, but this is misleading. There are a bunch of extras, yes, but too many of them have nothing to do with the movie itself. There's a video jukebox that lets you pick music videos from other Dreamworks Animation films. There's a "Top Secret" section that previews How to Train Your Dragon, the Shrek musical, some DTV offshoots, and videogame demos. Color me uninterested. Same goes for the features on B.O.B.'s Big Break, save for one. There's a karaoke feature where you can choose to listen to Susan sing "I Will Survive"; watch B.O.B. dance around with Jell-O to the tune of "More Than a Woman"; and a hilarious version of "Born to be Wild," as sung by Dr. Cockroach and Missing Link. Theirs is the only must-see.

As for feature-centric extras, they're more "Gin"eric than Ginormous. Or perhaps va"Gin"al. There's the commentary by producer Lisa Stewart, along with directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. It's decent, because much of it is spent talking about changes made from inception to finished product, which were a lot of gags and small plot lines. It's interesting that even after scenes were near completion, the directors allowed ad-libs from Rogen and Arnett and made the appropriate animation changes. Maybe it's interesting because revisions make me sick. There's "Modern Movie Monster-Making" and "The Tech of Monsters vs. Aliens," both of which are watchable. The former talks about making the first stereoscopic 3-D film and the casting. The second talks about how impossible things would have been without the technological input from Hewlett-Packard and Intel. I'm pretty sure more computers were used in this movie than there are in many small countries. It was a daunting task, and I'm sure everyone involved is proud of their work, but seeing as how the DVD is in 2-D format, I don't really care what it took to make the movie in 3-D. And since this movie made something around $250M in the U.S. alone, couldn’t we have seen a package similar to Coraline, which grossed only half as much but included both dimensional versions. I'm sure it would have been soooo expensive, but whatever, Jeffery Katzenberg. To round things off, there are three deleted scenes, two of which are animatics and one is a finished version. Just some incidental stuff: a war room scene, a confused B.O.B. scene, and one with Monger fighting clones.

I've written way too much about this. The devil is in the details, and where this movie is concerned, that's where the quality is. Kids will totally dig it, and a RedBox DVD machine is a hell of a lot cheaper than a babysitter. Not that you should leave your kids alone. Roman Polanski's coming back to the country.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.