Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: "Monsters vs. Aliens"

In terms of the quality of animation, we’ve reached the point where DreamWorks and Pixar are in a virtual dead heat. Pixar films (“Finding Nemo”) have traditionally looked better, but with “Kung Fu Panda” and now “Monsters vs. Aliens”, the underdogs have closed the gap.

“Monsters” is simply marvelous to gaze upon, particularly if you happen to catch it one of the theaters playing it in 3-D. There’s a density to the images, with an almost tactile feel, like they exist rather than are drawn. The action scenes are clear and smooth, and even the smallest background details seem to have been labored over.

But as storytellers, the DreamWorks folks are still understudies.

The best way to put it is this: DreamWorks animation is made to be entertainment, while Pixar animation is intended as art. “WALL·E” and its like go beyond cute characters and kid-friendly hijinks. They have something to say, and say it in a way that’s subtle and inventive.

With DreamWorks, any point to be made culminates in a single moment that practically announces itself: “And the moral of the story is…”

In “Monsters,” it’s when Susan, a woman who’s been turned into a 50-foot colossus, realizes that she’s been living her life through others – specifically, her smarmy, ambitious TV weatherman husband. When Susan declares she doesn’t need him anymore, it feels like a teachable moment aimed at children rather than an emotional epiphany.

Another distinction is that DreamWorks seems to go out of its way to cast only stars for its vocal performances, whereas Pixar finds the best voice actors to match the part, whether they’re famous or not. (Consider “WALL·E”: Sigourney Weaver is the only name actor, and she plays the ship’s computer.)

In “Monsters vs. Aliens,” virtually every major speaking part is done by a star. Reese Witherspoon is Susan, also known as Ginormica after a radioactive meteorite lands on her on her wedding day, leading to big developments at the altar. Kiefer Sutherland plays the tough old general who commands the secret military facility where all the monsters captured by the government are held. Rainn Wilson of “The Office” plays the many-tentacled villain, Gallaxhar.

This isn’t to say stars do a bad job. Seth Rogen is a hoot as B.O.B., a brainless, blobulous entity with a single eye that he often spits out and tosses around like a ball. (He was created during an experiment combining a tomato with a dessert topping.) And Will Arnett is amusingly guttural as Missing Link (just “Link” to his friends), a reptilian strongman.

Rounding out the team are Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a scientist who accidentally turned himself into a garbage-loving bug, and Insectosaurus, a 350-foot grub.

When a giant robot is sent to Earth by Gallaxhar, the monsters are called out to save the day. Susan joins in to gain her freedom, since all she wants to do is return to her home in Modesto. But soon Gallaxhar himself, plus his army of cloned selves, arrives to finish the job.

The action scenes are high-spirited and well-staged, and there are a few nice gags here and there. The president (Stephen Colbert), ensconced in his “Dr. Strangelove”-esque bunker, orders his lackeys: “We need our top scientific minds on this. Get me India on the phone!”

But in the end, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is merely a well-done bit of entertainment for kids. Nothing wrong with that – but when your competition is “WALL·E,” it’s a long way to second place.

2.5 stars out of four


  1. I actually liked Kung-fu Panda better than many of the Pixar films, and I love Pixar films (except for Cars).

  2. I rather liked Panda as well, though I don't think it's in the same class as the better Pixar films like Wall-E and Finding Nemo.