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Funny, insouciant and loaded with charm, Monsters vs. Aliens is the kind of blockbuster spectacle you wish came along every summer. The fact that it's animated never seems to occur to the movie, as it blazes through action set pieces and fight scenes with the fervor of any action star. Striking the perfect comedic tone early on and running with it, Monsters vs. Aliens is buoyantly silly while carrying its own thrills, and will have adults and kids alike laughing even as they gaze through their 3D glasses in amazement.
The 3D element is hard to underestimate, even though Monsters vs. Aliens doesn't really rely on a lot of gimmicks to make the expensive technology's presence felt. Aside from an early gag with a big rubber ball popping out at the audience, the 3D is mostly used to give a sense of space and scale, as well as an uncanny feeling of being part of even such an outlandish and deliberately cartoony movie. But unlike previous 3D hits like last summer's Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, Monsters vs. Aliens works just fine as its own movie even without the 3D gimmickry.
Featuring a serviceable plot that borrows from any number of other movies, Monsters vs. Aliens stars the voice of Reese Witherspoon as Susan, an average California girl all set to marry her preening weatherman fiancee Derek (Paul Rudd) when she's hit by an alien meteorite on her wedding day. Before she knows it she's grown 50 feet tall, and is locked in a giant asylum with other monsters who will be familiar to fans of the old 50s monster movies: Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a Kafka-style mad scientist, B.O.B the Blob (Seth Rogen), and The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a reptilian-man-thing who used to terrorize beachgoers in his golden days. Palling around with them is an enormous grub calls Insectosaurus, who communicates in Godzilla-style squeals that only The Missing Link can understand.
The monsters convince Susan she's never getting out of the asylum, but it turns out the evil alien who sent the meteorite that transformed Susan, Galaxxar (Rainn Wilson), wants his revenge, and only the monsters can stop him. Even after defeating one of the alien bots in a stunning sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge, the monsters still aren't getting any respect from the outside world, even from Susan's own family. That's when they realize they have to go up to the spaceship and fight Galaxxar himself.
Surrounding all this is the federal government in its usual chaos, with a President (Stephen Colbert, obviously) who thinks he can negotiate a truce with the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a series of war room scenes that quite deliberately evoke Dr. Strangelove. The screenplay falters a bit with these scenes, given that they have no real impact on the story, but the subtle satire combined with outright silliness makes the narrative time spent well worth it.
There would have been plenty of room to make the script tighter, and even with five credited screenwriters, some narrative threads get dropped entirely as the plot rushes breathlessly forward. But the efficient pacing helps gloss over those narrative gaps, and with all the voice actors giving their all, you root for their characters even when their character arcs fall flat.
Among the voices, which also include a memorably gruff Kiefer Sutherland as the monsters' military guardian and even Amy Poehler as a computer voice, Seth Rogen is the real standout as B.O.B., the most childlike character and also the one who gets the best lines. He, Laurie and Arnett play well off one another, and even though Witherspoon is mostly certainly the odd woman out comedically, the four of them make such a good team that whatever sequels come will be worth it to hang out with them again.
So different in style and ambition from DreamWorks' latest animated effort, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens seems to be the studio's attempt to prove how many different things they can do with animation. Much more blockbuster than work of art, Monsters vs. Aliens is still a slick, well-crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment, the best of its kind the industry has offered all year so far.