Monday, March 30, 2009


Review: Monsters vs. Aliens
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

While excitement-hungry kids are no doubt licking their chops, I'm having a hard time stomaching Hollywood's latest multi-million dollar attraction: an all-you-can-ogle buffet of 3-D animation flicks. For those of you who don't know the difference between stereoscopy and CGI, let me be clear: I've no quarrel with computer-generated marvels like “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” which go down easy and pop your eyes without the aid of red and blue-tinted glasses. The tough-to-digest toons are the ones specifically created to be viewed in 3-D. These movies – which kicked off around 2007 and, according to DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who announced that year that his company would no longer be dabbling in 2-D, are set to continue into infinity and beyond – often abandon art and story for the sake of sheer spectacle, forcibly probing the senses rather than cleverly stimulating them. DreamWorks' “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a basically harmless but undeniably ridiculous throwback to B-movies of the 1950s, is the first of a long roster of 3-D titles to be released throughout the year. Like a poorly written pop-up book, it's dazzling but disposable, and if it's a good indicator of the other buffet selections, I had better stock up on Tums.

In case you missed the galaxy-sized marketing campaign for “MVA,” which included SoBe beverage tie-ins and 3-D commercials during the Super Bowl, here's the 411 on this beastie battle royale: Susan, a wholesome Californian whose voiced by Reese Witherspoon but whose big eyes and toothy smile suggest Julia Roberts, is ecstatic about marrying her ambitious weatherman beau, Derek (Paul Rudd). But on the big day, Susan is hit by a massive meteorite containing Quantonium, a powerful substance we later learn is the most coveted in all the universe. The stuff turns out to be the ultimate growth hormone, transforming Susan into a 50-foot giant with super strength (and an unexplained rock star hairdo). This puts a damper on Susan's white wedding and, even worse, lands her in a top-secret government stronghold where other captured “monsters” have also been imprisoned. Branded with the codename Ginormica, Susan is forced to bunk up with Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist whose experiments made him into a bug-man a la “The Fly”; The Missing Link (Will Arnett) a 20,000-year-old fish-man a la “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a one-eyed wad of indestructible goo a la “The Blob”; and Insectosaurus, an odd amalgamation of a moth, a lobster and a gerbil that has the city-stomping temperament of “Godzilla” but might as well have been lifted from the doodles of a toddler. When Earth is invaded by the evil Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), a multi-eyed, multi-tentacled and narcissistic extra-terrestrial who's after that Quantonium, Susan and her new friends are called upon as a last resort to save the planet.

To be fair, the description of this film doesn't sound any sillier than a panda who practices martial arts. But the crucial difference between “MVA” and last year's DreamWorks hit is that “Kung Fu Panda” took the time to develop its characters and its narrative. There isn't much of a story here, and the connection to the personalities on screen is even more threadbare. Homesick Susan supplies some human relatability, but even her character's arc feels rushed and unnatural, leaving the audience with no one to cheer for. And, let's face it, at least that panda was cute. Aside from B.O.B., who drums up a few aw-shucks points as the big, dumb lug, none of these monsters are very appealing, least of all that dreadfully uninspired Insectosaurus. So, these unattractive creatures that we don't really care about are dropped into scenarios that don't feel urgent. What's left? What else? Action and special effects.

“MVA” has some spectacularly rendered sequences, but they lack cohesion, arriving in showy, intermittent bursts. The first major battle feels like it could be the climax and the climax is notably anti-climactic. And all of said sequences, though fun and fast-paced, have clearly been borrowed from live-action pictures that were far more effective. When Susan sprouts to about ten times her natural height and crashes through the roof of a church, we think, of course, “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.” When swirling cameras follow helicopters and jets as they whiz around the arms and legs of a giant robot, I, at least, thought, “The Empire Strikes Back.” And all those protective forcefields surrounding the alien spacecrafts scream “Independence Day.” Why is it that so many kids' flicks insist on being derivative, notoriously plucking from pop culture and pre-existing texts? This movie was written by five people, directed by two people, and it still leaves much to be desired in terms of creative vision, a void that no amount of flashy 3-D imaging can fill.

Due credit must be given to the the film's uncommonly star-studded voice cast, all of whom turn in fine work despite the conditions. Though even she can't give Susan much of a heartbeat, Witherspoon, a truly genuine actress, is surprisingly endearing as a skyscraper-sized superheroine. Rogen, a truly loveable lug, is surprisingly charming as a blue bubble of ooze. Laurie, a truly hilarious intellectual, is surprisingly perfect as a brainy insect. And Wilson, a truly strange comedian, is surprisingly articulate as an archetypal villain. But none of these talented actors, which also include Kiefer Sutherland and Stephen Colbert, are able to bring much depth to this material. For all its 3-D embellishments, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is, not so surprisingly, one-dimensional.

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