Not to let any unnecessary ideology creep into a review of a fun animated movie, but let’s get this out of the way up front: Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks Animation) is a film for children with a female lead. She is not the love interest, or the helpmate, or the mom. Nor is she a princess, or princesslike. She does not marry a prince or a prince-manqué. She does not marry at all. She tries to get married, but she is struck by a meteor on her wedding day (typical!), which transforms her into an unmarriageable, world-saving, 49-foot-11-inch superfreak and— thank you, O bountiful movie gods—a Strong Female Protagonist. (Or, as my more skeptical viewing companion put it, “a strong female protagonist who just happens to be ultra-skinny with big boobs and a pneumatic butt, and who sometimes wears a catsuit.” Touché.)
We can also think of saucer-eyed Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), aka Ginormica, as the majestic figure on the prow of the DreamWorks Animation galleon as it heads into uncharted waters: Starting with MvA, the studio will be making all of its films in 3-D, which means higher-priced tickets, added security against bootlegging, and—oh yeah—a more absorbing visual experience. (In this gamble, DreamWorks has good company: James Cameron’s first post-Titanic narrative feature, December’s outer-space quest Avatar, is in 3-D, and Pixar’s forthcoming Up will open this year’s Cannes festival in three dimensions.) Though it begins with a flinch-inducing game of paddleball and frequently arranges for characters to reach a hand into the audience, MvA for the most part stays out of your personal space; instead, the multilayered picture tends to have a gently immersive effect, akin to a stroll through the world’s most expensive diorama.
The 3-D format also enhances the movie’s retro-futurist spirit: Starting with its pulp-tastic title and the Soylent Green accents of its early scenes, MvA is a loving parody-homage to 1950s creature features like Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, The Fly, and The Blob. The newly gargantuan Susan—soon to be dumped by her insipid fiance (Paul Rudd) on grounds of excessive tallness—wakes up in a top-secret government facility, where she shares what looks like an airplane hangar with fellow “monsters” Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a bug/man; the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a 20,000-year-old ape/fish; the botched snack-food experiment B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a transparent, voracious blob the color of Vanish Drop-Ins; and the mute/scary/adorable 350-foot Insectosaurus. The incarcerated menagerie is under the supervision of General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), but not long after Susan arrives, they’re all furloughed to fight the evil alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), who wants to conquer Earth with clones of himself. (More homage: The deranged war-room encounters between the crusty general and the idiot president, played by Stephen Colbert, are a nod to Dr. Strangelove.)
What has often eluded DreamWorks ever since its first computer-animated film, Antz, back in 1998, is how to ensure the taller members of the audience are entertained without resorting to coarse double-entendre and pointless pop-culture referencing (the Shrek franchise was often guilty of both). That is to say that one suspects DreamWorks has long ached to make its very own Pixar movie, and with Monsters vs. Aliens, the studio finally succeeds. The characterizations are unusually rich for the DW brand: Arnett’s Missing Link suggests a well-meaning lothario puzzling through a midlife crisis, and Rogen’s literally brainless B.O.B. makes an endearing testament to impenetrable innocence and cheerful cooperation worthy of Ray Bolger or Anna Faris. MvA nails Pixar’s gift for the glorious non sequitur (for example, the president’s olive branch to Gallaxhar, which involves a certain deathless cornerstone of ‘80s synth-pop). But it also captures the offbeat sweetness, the unsentimental prizing of teamwork and loyalty, the wistful grace notes (viz., a depressed Susan plunking down dolefully on the awning of a gas station like it’s a park bench). Even the inevitable let’s-smash-stuff-up! interludes are weirdly heartwarming, as when Susan’s monster buddies, due to a momentary miscommunication, start pulverizing a white picket fence at their ladyship’s behest.
Right at its center, MvA contains the equivalent of a victory lap for the 3-D bandwagon, and an early front-runner for Action Sequence of the Year: Susan straps on two cars as ad-hoc roller skates and glides into a showdown—monstrous friends in tow—against Gallaxhar on the Golden Gate Bridge, as hundreds of terrified, tiny commuters run screaming from their cars. This epic set piece contains everything popcorn-movie-goers of all ages have ever asked for: a heretofore aimless character surprised and transformed by her own strength and bravery, a screen that swallows you up with gorgeous photorealist detail and comic bits of business, and above all else, the primal and eternal satisfactions of Crash-Wreck-Explode-Destroy. Like much of Monsters vs. Aliens, it feels almost as good as getting hit by a meteor.
Slate V: The critics on Monsters vs. Aliens and other new movies