Sunday, November 14, 2010

Film Review: Monsters vs Aliens

"Monsters vs Aliens" ** (out of ****)

After watching the wonderful Dreamworks animated film "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) I was greatly looking forward to seeing "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009), another CGI animated film given to us by Dreamworks. How on Earth could the same studio give us both movies?

For years I use to feel animation was a waste of my time. The concepts would be too childish to hold my attention. I need a live action movie with some good acting, intelligent writing and crisp directing. What I don't need is to see talking animals make pop culture references. Well, at least "Monsters vs Aliens" avoids that. There are no talking animals, well, except for a talking cockroach.

But animation is big business. These movies make hundreds of millions of dollars for studios. "Monsters vs Aliens" pulled in (domestically) close to 200 million. My guess is families are so starved for decent entertainment they will take a chance on anything. When you place all of your chips on the table sometimes you'll get lucky and find a "Toy Story" (1995), "Finding Nemo" (2003) or "Kung Fu Panda" in the shuffle. But other times you'll have to sit through something like "Monsters vs Aliens".

To be fair "Monsters vs Aliens" has a pretty decent set-up. Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is about the marry the man of her dreams or so she thinks, a weatherman, Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd). She has plans to move to Paris where hopefully Derek will find a job as a top anchorman and they will live happily ever after. Unfortunately just before Susan walks down the alter a meteorite hits her turning her into the 50ft Woman.

The government kidnaps her and takes her to a secret lab which has been in operation for more than 50 years. You see, in the name of national security our government has been lying to us (go figure!). For years the existence of monsters has been denied but all the while the government has been collecting them. The operation has been headed by General W.R. Monger (get it? War monger. Voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) for 50 years. Susan is his latest find.

The other monsters are B.O.B (Seth Rogen, who also lent his voice to "Kung Fu Panda") a version of the Blob, Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) a scientist who devised a machine to give humans the survival instincts of a cockroach but accidentally turned himself into one. I can only imagine this was inspired by "The Fly" (1958). And The Missing Link (Will Arnet).

What exactly does the government plan on doing with them? Why keep them for 50 years? In the name of national security why didn't they just kill them? But there I go, thinking like an adult when I'm watching a movie called "Monsters vs Aliens". What's wrong with me? I should know full well, you don't ask these kind of logical questions.

Soon America finds itself under attack by a space alien, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). Even after President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert) tries to make friends with it (by playing the "Beverly Hills Cop" theme song on an electric keyboard) the alien still attacks. The military is not capable of destroying it. What to do? Why of course. Send the monsters to fight it.

What I dislike about this movie is for one thing, quite frankly it isn't that funny. I don't know what children are going to be laughing at. Maybe they will find the B.O.B character funny. He is said to have no brain and can absorb everything. They may think his antics are funny. But there is not much here for adults. I also thought some of the language was out of place here dealing with marital infidelity and words such as "jerk" peppered into the screenplay. Then again, this is the same studio which gave us "Shrek" (2001) which I also thought was inappropriate for children.

The other disappointing element of the movie is the characters lack personality. Nothing really makes them memorable. The animators did not make use of the actors lending their voices by incorporating their screen persona's into their characters. There is a great cast here but for what? So Reese Witherspoon provides the voice of Susan. They can have gotten Jane Doe. What's the difference? What does Witherspoon add to the character another actress couldn't?

The adults who watch this may catch some of the pop references. A war room conference will make us think of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). George C. Scott's character seems to have been the main inspiration for the Gen. Monger character. We will also catch the references to 50s science-fiction movies like "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman", "The Blob" and "The Fly". And you might take pleasure in hearing Stephen Colbert and Amy Poehler (the voice of the space ship).

"Monsters vs Aliens" was co-directed by Rob Letterman, who directed "Shark Tale" (2004) and the upcoming version of "Gulliver's Travels" (2010) and Conrad Vernon, the man behind "Shrek 2" (2004). The script was written by Maya Forbes, who actually wrote "The Larry Sanders Show" and Wallace Wolodarsky, who has worked on "The Simpsons". So what the heck happened here? How did the film go so off course?

"Monsters vs Aliens" has a good premise but does almost nothing with it. It needed to take more time establishing the set-up and delaying the big fight. We get two big fight scenes. After the first big battle the movie runs out of interesting ideas. It also needed more character development. And for the life of me I can't figure out the moral of the story. Is it women should be independent? Don't judge a book (or monster) by its cover? Or simply monsters are better than aliens?

Dreamworks doesn't have the long list of animated classics Pixar does. I think many times Pixar films are over-hyped. But they generally tell well developed stories. Pixar movies seem a little more polished to me. Dreamworks is a little rough around the edges. It reminds me of the old days in Hollywood during the studio system and the musicals of the 1930s. MGM was much more classy and sophisticated. Warner Brothers on the other hand had a more "common folk" touch. That's how I feel about Pixar (MGM) and Dreamworks (Warner Brothers). "Monsters vs Aliens" is a movie I doubt will become an enduring family favorite. This is a giant step backwards for them. Luckily "Megamind" (2010) is a much, much better movie.