I am a huge fan of animated films. And since Pixar can't produce every animated film, I also go to Disney films. And since those two studios release only a few films every year, I also go to see DreamWorks animation. DreamWorks animated efforts are getting better, but they still lack the magic Pixar is able to create and the beauty Disney is capable of.
In their newest release, "Monsters Vs. Aliens", the filmmakers blend a series of references to classic sci fi and monster films of the 50s, with the pop culture references that are de rigueur for any animated film today. The result is an enjoyable effort, enhanced by the 3D process it was created for. The key difference between this film and say "Coraline" or "Bolt" is that while the 3D enhances these far better films, it wasn't necessary to enjoy either. In "Monsters Vs. Aliens", the film would seem a little lackluster without the 3D glasses. propped on your nose, making everything seem a little more lifelike.
The story opens at a monitoring station in Antarctica. The bored technicians are hitting a ping-pong ball lazily in the air and at us. Woo. Watch out it might just hit you. This is an amusing signal to us that this film is going to make a lot of references to 3D films from the 50s, when the technology was first introduced to battle the threat of television. There is a similar scene in Vincent Price's "House of Wax" when a barker uses the same technique to get the attention of passerby, hitting the ball directly at us. The key difference between the two films is that the 3D process is so much more convincing now.
Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is preparing to marry her fiancée Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd) in their hometown of Modesto when Derek springs the news on Susan that they won't be going to Paris for their honeymoon, Derek needs to go to Fresno for an interview to become the anchor of their nightly news. He is on his way up and she tries to match his enthusiasm. Susan is upset, but she acquiesces and walks out to a gazebo, to think about the wedding, Derek, her life. Unfortunately, this is also the time and place a meteor strikes next to the gazebo. And Susan walks away, glowing. During the ceremony, she grows 50 feet and the Army quickly appears to try to control her. Later, she wakes up in a large containment facility run by General W. R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) and she meets the other inhabitants of the program; insectasourus, a large centipede, B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, "Knocked Up", "Pineapple Express"), a big blue blob who seems to like everyone and doesn't seem to care that he has no brains, Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, TV's "House"), a mad scientist who ran afoul of one of his own experiments and The Missing Link (Will Arnett, "Blades of Glory", TV's "Arrested Development"), a man-sized fish like creature. They quickly come together to fight an Alien invasion led by Galaxhar (Rainn Wilson, TV's "The Office"), who wants to take over the Earth because his planet was just destroyed. The President (Stephen Colbert, TV's "The Colbert Report") tries to talk to Galaxhar's robot emissary, but soon runs in retreat. But General Monger is confident his monsters can fight the aliens, so they head off to battle Galaxhar in the Bay Area.
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon (who worked on "Shark Tales" and the "Shrek" films in various capacities) and co-written by Wallace Wolodarsky (one of the early, original writers on "The Simpsons"), "Monsters Vs. Aliens" packs a lot of references to iconic sci fi films of the 50s and some real humor into the neat little story. The animation is also more stylized than we are used to, moving away from the hyper-realized visions filmmakers have been trying to achieve with some recent examples of animation. All of this helps give the film a sweet, good natured background, a slightly nostalgic appeal to match the small town Susan is from.
Reese Witherspoon is good, but she isn't memorable enough or different enough to make the character stand out. When she becomes a fifty foot tall woman, she is christened Ginormica. But this is about the extent of her character becoming a monster or a super hero. Most of the time, we watch as Susan deals with her fiancée Dirk, her mom and dad and her hometown. If this were a drama, bravo. But as it is an animated film, it doesn't feel like her character is taken far enough.
Seth Rogen plays B.O.B., a blue mass of goo who seems to have no brains and just wants to be friends with people. But he also seems to be a little awkward around others; instead of hugging them, he swallows them and has to regurgitate them covered in blue goo.
B.O.B. is extremely funny and so good-natured you almost want to reach up to the screen, grab him in your arms and give him a bear hug. Rogen infects him with his laid back personality and B.O.B. is quick to laugh, and smile. B.O.B. is also an example of an animated character given life by both the animators and the actor providing his voice. Generally, the animators try to match the character to the actor, working hard to ensure the character matches what the actor is doing. Robin Williams still remains the most memorable modern animated character as the Genie in Disney's "Aladdin", Tom Hanks and Tim Allen did great work in both "Toy Story" films, Jeremy Irons was great as Scar in "The Lion King". These are a few examples of the perfect combination of actor to character and material, all of which intersect allowing the actor to create a memorable character, someone who will live on in our minds and subconscious. I don't know if Rogen exactly achieves that with B.O.B., but he comes close. Darn close. Closer than most of the other actors in the cast.
When Bob meets people, he wants to hug them, but he can't and he ends up swallowing them, only to immediately spit them out. Always laughing and smiling, B.O.B. likes to do tricks with his one eye and seems pretty oblivious. When he is scolded by someone, he frowns, but then quickly smiles and starts laughing, much like a child who doesn't completely understand what they have done. Its just fun to watch this character and he makes you laugh.
He also hits on a molded Jello salad at one point, providing a big laugh later.
Hugh Laurie (TV's "House") provides the voice for Dr. Cockroach. He's good, and it's funny to see the mad scientist role played to a certain limit, but this is another example of the character not going far enough. Will Arnett plays The Missing Link, who seems to be the giant Caterpillar's guardian and watchdog. Stephen Colbert has a few funny moments as the President.
But the other stand out in the cast is, surprisingly, Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland provides the voice for General W. R. Monger, the leader of the Monsters. It's a nice turn, clearly patterned after Slim Picken's performance in "Dr. Strangelove". His voice has that slight Southern twang and is full of bluster and bravado. Flying around in a jet pack, he seems to compensate for his short stature in other ways.
Perhaps the highlight of the film is how many references to classic sci-fi and horror films from the 50s the filmmakers have packed in. For me, the most memorable was the ping pong paddle I mentioned before, but they manage to work in references to or gags about so many films it is a virtual treasure trove for people who loves films from this era. Some films provide a lot of visual jokes and puns ("Dr. Strangelove", ":The Day The Earth Stood Still", "The Blob"), others provide more fleeting moments ("Mothra", "The Fly"). The filmmakers clearly love these films, providing a Valentine to the movies they grew up with.
"Monsters Vs. Aliens" is a very admiral effort and it is worth a look. While it can't reach the heights of a Pixar or Disney films, DreamWorks has their first solid, non "Shrek" hit on their hands.