Monday, March 30, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Forget Monsters vs. Aliens, the real fight is Pixar vs. Dreamworks Animation. Pixar, long in the lead with their deft mix of masterpieces and mere excellence, has Dreamworks down for the count. Even though Kung Fu Panda and the first two Shreks are fun and Over the Hedge is not without its charms, the rest of their CG-feature output is pretty dismal. More often than not, Dreamworks seems to be trying too hard to satisfy all ages whereas Pixar makes it seem so easy. Monsters vs. Aliens does nothing to reverse Dreamworks's trend and I suppose it’s not all that surprising given their track record, but it’s always depressing to see a promising concept so thoroughly squandered. This is a hollow movie. There aren’t any great characters here despite the great ideas for characters. They stay designs up there on the screen, fun looking creatures with hip celebrity voices spouting cringingly obvious pop-culture references that are just enough out-of-date and out-of-place that they caused me to feel a little embarrassed for the filmmakers. “Dance Dance Revolution” and An Inconvenient Truth jokes? What is this, 2006?

The story concerns monsters called into service by the president (Stephen Colbert, who unfortunately never rises above the obvious stunt-casting) and General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) to fight an alien invasion. There’s one nice set piece in the middle of the movie involving a fight on the Golden Gate Bridge but, otherwise, the movie’s bafflingly slow in setting up the concept and remarkably uneventful after that. The concept isn’t all that complicated - the trailers, even the TV spots, set up the whole thing in seconds flat - but of the film’s two action sequences and the handful of funny moments, most have been cannibalized into the advertising. The movie takes forever to start, even longer to arrive and then spins its wheels once it gets there.

This is anything but satisfying on a plot level but some of the voice work is very strong. Reese Witherspoon’s Susan, who becomes Ginormica, is a strong character, a great girl-power gust in an otherwise routine movie. Also memorable is Seth Rogen’s gooey Bob who’s an absolute goof, and a funny one. (Ginormica and Bob are much better than the material deserves. Can someone find a better movie for the two of them?) More disappointing are Will Arnett as a fish-man and Hugh Laurie as a cockroach-man. They’re funny actors but here they’re floundering with little to do and barely caricatures to play; they have vaguely focused traits but little else. And Rainn Wilson as Gallaxhar, the invading alien, is a curiously nonthreatening creature. As a result, the movie never seems to have any real stakes. Sure, the world might be destroyed, but if the movie doesn’t care why should I?

The monsters are clearly 50s creature-feature throwbacks and there’s myriad references to various other, better, sci-fi movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. but the references are more than just winking at other movies, they’re reminders of how unsuccessful this movie is. It’s all commerce and little art for this enterprise which seems to have been tailor-made to sell cheap toys. During a scene near the end, while I should have been nervous that our heroes would fail, I was instead looking in the background at all the alien robots and wondering if that’s what the back room of a Toys 'R' Us looks like right now.

Additional Note: The 3D looks just fine but doesn’t seem worth the fuss. For every scene where a paddleball of piece of debris flies out, there’s a scene during which I found myself wishing I could take the glasses off and just admire the very beautiful animation, the one flawless aspect of the movie.

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