The Good: Funny, Wonderful animation, Amazing in 3-D, Likable characters, Interesting plot concept, Good execution.
The Bad: Slightly predictable, Lost something on DVD (scale issues)
The Basics: Funny and impressive in 3-D, Monsters Vs. Aliens is the winner many of us did not expect from Dreamworks!
For those who do not read many of my reviews, it is worth noting that it is a very rare thing that I dole out 10/10 ratings. To get a 10/10 rating in my pantheon, something has to be perfect. Some of the ones that have gotten just below have been close enough that I used a coin to determine which way the rating went. Monsters Vs. Aliens was one such film and having just seen it again with my wife, the bottomline on it is that this film is a solid 9, looks amazing on the big screen and it almost guaranteed fun for anyone who loves movies. But, it is not perfect and on DVD, it loses something.
Traditionally, I have not been as excited about Dreamworks animation productions. While many lauded Shrek, I found it to be essentially a one-joke film and was not on that bandwagon. When it came to A Shark Tale, I was excited about it and left the film literally slackjawed from the racist and classist tinge of the film. So, my fear for Monsters Vs. Aliens was that it would be a one-joke film geared toward children. It was not; in fact, my fiance and I laughed more than the lone kid at the showing we went to!
On the day she is to be married to a self-centered weatherman, Susan Murphy is hit by a meteor of quantonium, which causes her to grow to an incredible height and becomes the target of an elite government agency in charge of protecting the world from monsters. Susan wakes up in a pentagon facility run by W.R. Monger, who introduces her to the other captured monsters: B.O.B. (actually pronounced "Bob") an amorphous blob of blue goo, Dr. Cockroach (it's exactly as he sounds, a mad scientist trapped in the body of a giant cockroach), The Missing Link (a reptile or amphibian of great strength), and Insectasaurus, a massive furry insect. Susan is renamed Ginormica and prepares for a life trapped in the government facility.
But soon, the United States finds itself under siege by an immense robot probe sent from Gallaxhar, a power-hungry alien who is attempting to make himself invincible by harnessing all of the quantonium in the galaxy. When the President of the United States fails to overwhelm the probe, Monger sends out the monsters to stop the probe and by banding together with their various strengths, Ginormica, B.O.B., Dr. Cockroach, The Missing Link, and Insectasaurus work to save San Francisco and the world. But their first victory only draws Gallaxhar to Earth and offers further danger for everyone!
It ought to be stressed right up front that Monsters Vs. Aliens is fun and far smarter than I would have anticipated. First, it is hilarious, making science fiction allusions across the board from Star Trek to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and many others that will no doubt keep geeks (like me) rewatching the film multiple times. Many of the best jokes, though, are geared toward seasoned geeks and adults - not children - like when The Missing Link finds himself topside for the first time in decades and notes that it is hotter and it would be "a convenient truth" if someone would have told him. While there were a huge number (I would estimate at least half) of the best jokes used in the various preview trailers for Monsters Vs. Aliens, there were enough laugh-out-loud funny jokes in the film to sustain viewers outside the already known jokes.
Second, ultimately the reason I let the rating - nines are between fours and fives anyway - come down to a cointoss and let that fall where it did was because seeing Monsters Vs. Aliens in 3-D was absolutely incredible. Dreamworks animation did some truly impressive work where three-dimensional shots were then expanded on by adding elements in a deep foreground which were quite extraordinary. When I consider films, spectacle rates very low on my list. Still, the effects in Monsters Vs. Aliens are quite impressive. How will they look on a smaller screen? How will they look in less than 3-D? Nowhere near as impressive, this I could tell already.
The reason spectacle usually scores so low for me is that spectacle is the icing on a film's substance and while great films may be enhanced by decent special effects or dragged down by crummy ones, it is impossible to make a perfect film where all one has going for it is effect. Character, plot and acting make up the substance of a story and form the foundations of great works. Spectacle only garnishes them. To that end, Monsters Vs. Aliens looks good, but it has a strong foundation as well. The plot is relatively original and it is laced with enough humor to mitigate the minor predictable elements (though the scene in the middle of the closing credits certainly takes a turn for the unpredictable!) and not make the viewer ask the essential question of "why can't nuclear arms be used against the alien probe?"
As for the characters, they were far more likable and developed than I would have predicted given the previews. For example, Susan keeps a thread of interest running throughout the film so strong that B.O.B. begins to believe he is dating Derek as well! Susan is transformed into Ginormica, but does not lose her humanity or backstory, which is something that happens in far too many of this type science fiction or superhero story. And character development is usually absent in comedies, but Monsters Vs. Aliens has it, albeit a bit predictable.
Even the supplemental characters of The Missing Link and W.R. Monger have some sense of backstory and character to them. Link is a bit out of shape and W.R. Monger has been kept from the President's inner circle. So, their journey takes them along arcs of redemption (of a sort) and promotion.
The voices in Monsters Vs. Aliens are well-chosen as expressive and/or recognizable. Seth Rogen continues his streak of comic brilliance as the voice of B.O.B. and Hugh Laurie is likely to impress American audiences with his vocal diversity as Dr. Cockroach. Reese Witherspoon holds her own as the lead, as she plays Susan and Ginormica. She uses her voice wonderfully to emote and express her character's emotions in compelling ways deeper than the animations. Even Rainn Wilson and Kiefer Sutherland give vocally diverse performances that are unexpected. Stephen Colbert, of course, hams it up as the President and fills the niche perfectly.
All in all, Monsters Vs. Aliens made it on my "Best Of 2009" movie list as it was consistently funny, amazingly animated and was far smarter than many of its Dreamworks Animated predecessors. See it in 3-D (or IMAX 3-D!) if at all possible!
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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