MOVIE REVIEW- Cast vs. script: <i>Monster</i>'s voices soar; story sinks
A great voice cast battles an undernourished script to a draw in Monsters vs. Aliens, which doesn't involve drawing because it's all computer-animated.
In the annual Oscar smackdown, an occasional David challenges the reigning animation Goliaths, Pixar (WALL-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Cars) and DreamWorks (Shrek, Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda, Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
This year the first shot fired, which isn't likely to hit anything, is named for another contest. Monsters vs. Aliens sounds like it could be a sequel to Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (and the live-action Alien films), but it comes from DreamWorks and isn't a sequel to anything.
It begins with an exploding planet sending a fragment hurtling toward the audience (at least in the 3-D version) and landing on the planet Earth. Tracked by a sleepy government outpost in Antarctica, it lands in Modesto, California. There it grazes Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) as she's about to marry ambitious local weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd), who's trying to move up to a Fresno station.
Something from the meteorite gets into Susan, who starts glowing, then growing, until she looks like something out of Attack of the 50-foot Woman.
That's no coincidence. Monsters vs. Aliens is in part a homage to the monster movies of the 1950s, many of which were also made in 3-D, with additional references to later films (e.g., Destroy All Monsters!), including Spielberg classics.
Susan's physical growth is also a metaphor for female empowerment. She's captured by the government, renamed Ginormica and taken to a facility where "monsters" (a metaphor for anyone who's "different") have been hidden away since 1950. The man in charge, Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland, channeling George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove) describes it as "an X-File wrapped in a cover-up and deep-fried in a paranoid conspiracy."
The other monsters have backstories from old movies. Huge, non-verbal Insectosaurus grew because of nuclear radiation, like everything from Them to Godzilla. Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie) has a bug's head on the body of a brilliant mad scientist, like The Fly. B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is an "unstoppable gelatinous mass," a Blob, if you will. The Missing Link (Will Arnett) is a creature that might have crawled out of the Black Lagoon. Despite the vocal work, most of them have very little personality.
Just when it looks like they'll be incarcerated forever, the aliens send a giant robot that ignores the President's (Stephen Colbert) attempt at "peaceful communication." It's determined that only the monsters can stop it, and they're offered their freedom if they can.
This leads to the first and best battle sequence, in which the robot chases Ginormica through San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge, where she and her new friends take a stand.
Monsters vs. Aliens fades fast after this high point. Though never exactly a gut-buster, it becomes virtually humorless from then on (except for B.O.B. finding romance at a party) to concentrate on action. Again it's not the fault of the voice work. Rainn Wilson is terrific as the snarling villain Galaxhar, leader of the aliens, who attacks Earth to retrieve the precious Quantonium Susan has absorbed.
If you're going to see it, it's probably worth the extra bucks to see it in 3-D. While some promotion claims they wanted to avoid being gimmicky about it, an early scene features a paddle ball being hit into the audience, as was done in House of Wax in 1954.
Stay through the first couple minutes of credits for an extra scene. There's nothing after that, unless you want to hear Sheb Wooley sing "Purple People Eater."
Vocal bit players include Renée Zellweger, Amy Poehler, Jeffrey Tambor and John Krasinski; but it doesn't help to spend millions on your cast when the script only cost $1.98.