Friday, March 27, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens: Retro giggle

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) • View trailer for Monsters vs. Aliens
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for action violence and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.27.09
Buy DVD: Monsters vs. Aliens • Buy Blu-Ray: Monsters vs. Aliens [Blu-ray]

Curious about the degree to which voice talent can bring additional sizzle to an animated film's steak?

Look no further than Monsters vs. Aliens.

This fast-paced sci-fi comedy probably would have done well regardless; directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon hit the ground running and never let up, and their script  co-authored with four other credited writers  has both a clever premise and plenty of room for sight gags, one-liners and exciting action sequences.
Having blossomed to 1 inch shy of 50 feet, poor Susan Murphy
(voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is horrified to discover that a massive
alien probe wants to capture her; the subsequent chase rages through
most of San Francisco -- the residents having fled -- and threatens to
engulf the Golden Gate Bridge. And this is just the first chaotic

The voice talent, however, really makes the film.

And while I hesitate to single out anybody, Seth Rogen is too funny for words as the bright blue benzoate-ostylezene-bicarbonate blob mercifully known as B.O.B. As the sentient result of an experiment that blended a chemically altered ranch-flavored dessert topping with a genetically altered tomato  an origin story that should bring an additional giggle from Davis viewers  poor Bob was fabricated without a brain.

The character therefore lives truly for the moment, since it can't plan ahead or remember details even a few minutes removed. Needless to say, such a concept gives plenty of ammunition to Rogen, and Bob pretty much steals the film.

Fortunately, the blue blob has plenty of competition.

Monsters vs. Aliens is a deliberately retro take on what might have happened if the frequently silly creatures cobbled together for 1950s monster flicks actually existed. Bob therefore can be viewed as a much funnier cousin of the gelatinous "Blob" that menaced Steve McQueen in the 1958 film of the same title; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, perfectly stuffy and condescending) is a superior result of the trans-matter experiment gone awry in 1958's The Fly.

The preening, half-fish/half-ape known as The Missing Link (Will Arnett) is 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon in all but name, while the 350-foot grub dubbed Insectosaurus stands in for every giant costumed monster that battled Godzilla in a variety of flicks.

The narrative begins sedately, as California gal Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) prepares to marry Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd), a narcissistic weather guy hoping to graduate from his remote-channel Modesto indie station to a more prestigious market. Sadly, when Susan gets clonked by an oddly glowing meteor mere minutes before her wedding, she derails the ceremony by growing until she's 49 feet and 11 inches tall (the tattered remnants of her wedding dress somehow still preserving her modesty).

Next thing she knows, Susan has been whisked to a top-top-top-secret government facility, where she's given the new code name Ginormica and left to fraternize with her fellow monsters.

Because it's Witherspoon, we can't help feeling achingly sorry for the poor woman. The deliberately cartoonish animation style is too far removed from physical reality to take seriously, and yet  thanks to Witherspoon's acting chops  we're deeply moved by her plight. Even though it's utterly absurd.

Susan's indoctrination is conducted by Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), an armed forces lifer just itching for a chance to prove that his pet project can be more than a drain on American taxpayers. Sutherland's hilariously gruff take on this character immediately evokes fond memories of all the tough-as-nails drill sergeant types once played by R. Lee Ermey.

Gen. Monger gets his wish when Earth is invaded by a massive robot probe sent by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), an alien megalomaniac hoping to conquer our planet and remake it in his own image ... after he first retrieves the green, glowing gook that infected Susan and boosted her to plus-size. When conventional weaponry proves useless against the robot invader, Monger unleashes his monsters.

Definitely the sort of "solution" that will make folks wonder if the cure is worse than the disease...

Subsequent set-pieces include a great skirmish between the robot probe and the terrified Susan, who tries to escape by running atop all the buildings in downtown San Francisco, and then jams her feet into two empty cars and uses them as roller skates. The other monsters join the fray for a climax on the Golden Gate Bridge, and this is just the beginning; things get even more frantic once our unlikely heroes wind up on Gallaxhar's even more massive spaceship.

(You can't really worry about economies of scale in this flick; the whole concept of big-bigger-biggest-biggerest is a running gag throughout.)

DreamWorks animated films tend to be a bit snarkier than their Disney/Pixar cousins; the dialogue is a trifle more rude, the topical references a bit more pointed. Aside from successfully lampooning the whole 1950s movie monster scene, Letterman and Vernon's script also pokes fun at our Chief of State, with Stephen Colbert voicing perhaps the most clueless president ever to inhabit the Oval Office.

The button to make coffee in the war room is the same size and color as the button that'll launch the nukes and initiate World War III, and you can just imagine where that gag is destined to go. Don't be surprised if a few memories of Dr. Strangelove come to mind, not to mention riffs on dozens of other films and TV shows.

Given how carefully this script must have been shaped, fleshed-out and polished, though, I must express disappointment on The Missing Link's behalf. Susan and all the rest of her new monster friends get ample opportunity to make use of their bizarre and/or hilarious talents, but the primarily water-bound Link never does much of anything except strike poses for nubile young lovelies.

That's a waste of a good monster, and rather sloppy writing.

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has made much of his intention to help bring about a new 3-D film revolution, and Monsters vs. Aliens makes a great calling card; the full-blown 3-D experience  this is the first film made with Intel's new InTru process  really rocks. Some of the 3-D effects are no more than affectionate nods to vintage gimmicks  exploding planetary debris, a paddle-ball sproinging into our faces  but the best action sequences also get a lot of extra juice from their dimensionality.

One chase through Gallaxhar's spaceship is frantic enough to induce vertigo.

The arch dialogue will be just as funny on a conventional (2-D) screen, of course, so a trip to Sacramento's IMAX theater isn't crucial.

Monsters vs. Aliens could have used some additional script doctoring  or maybe, alternatively, fewer cooks in the kitchen  so I can't call it an animation classic. But it's certainly a lot more fun than much of the dreck Hollywood has released for the past few months.

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