An imaginative good time
by Molly Templeton
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS: Directed by Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman. Written by Letterman, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Story by Letterman and Vernon. Starring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson and Stephen Colbert. Dreamworks/Paramount, 2009. PG. 94 min.
Monsters vs. Aliens gets its flashiest 3D moment out of the way quickly, and with little fuss: Early on, a geek in a research facility bounces his paddle-ball thingie right close to your face. After that, the 3D is mostly just there to look cool, especially in space, where planetary rings and asteroids drift prettily along. What isn’t drifting nicely is the ship belonging to Galaxxhar (Rainn Wilson), who needs this cosmic rock thing for some totally unclear purpose. Mostly he just wants it. He’s one of those old-school alien baddies, just trying to take over the world, no worries.
The cosmic rock, meanwhile, has turned doormat Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) into the (almost) 50-foot woman, in the process making her ineligible for marriage to her self-obsessed fiancé, Derek (Paul Rudd). (Fifty-foot fiancées are hard to keep quietly at home, and they do, as Derek points out, cast quite a shadow.) After her growth spurt, Susan is quickly picked up by the military, led by the puffed-chest General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), who’s not really all that bad. In a top-secret facility, she gets a new name (Ginormica!) and meets her new best buds: the Missing Link (Will Arnett), an ancient fish-man; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a blue blob that resulted from a tomato incident; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), whose appearance is the result of his own experimentations; and Insectosaurus, who, er, actually, no one bothers to mention where the giant grub-creature came from. But despite its towering size, Insectosaurus is easily led, provided you have a large enough light.
So there you have it: Monsters — borrowed here and there from the catalog of old movies — versus aliens, or at least an alien. It would be overly generous to say that MvA makes the most of this appealing premise, but it would be needlessly unkind to say that it entirely fails to live up to it, either. Everyone involved — from Witherspoon down to Amy Poehler, who voices Galaxharr’s computer — appears to be having a good time, but a good time is all there is to the movie. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Sure, Susan learns that she’s capable of more than she expected, and it’s refreshing to watch the second animated feature this year in which the lead is a) female and b) not giddily wedded at the end.
But MvA remains shallow and giggle-worthy rather than smartly funny, despite (or maybe because of) its attempts to walk a careful line between snot rocket jokes and Close Encounters of the Third Kind references. Though many of the references are fairly gentle, the Close Encounters moment just might be the movie’s best: When the president (Stephen Colbert) ventures forth to meet Galaxharr’s alien robot probe, he doesn’t speechify; he reaches for a small synthesizer. Neither Encounters’ famous five-note melody, the Vulcan hand sign nor the theme from Beverly Hills Cop does the trick, but the attempt to communicate with an alien robot through various touchstones of pop culture is smartly charming. As the characters zoom off into battle with their interstellar adversary, however, the smart tone gets knocked out of the way in the kerfuffle. It all looks spiffy, sure. But looks, like size, aren’t everything.