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Friday, July 3, 2009

'Monsters vs. Aliens'

Big and blobby monsters gonna work it out

The ultimate tribute to cheesy 1950s science fiction — with its flying saucers, ray-guns and little green men — already exists and it's called "Mars Attacks." Tim Burton's homage to a duff genre was so wonderfully over-the-top, it's pretty hard to imagine anyone topping it, but Dreamworks Animation gives it a try in their latest offering "Monsters vs. Aliens," an animated film which pairs '50s sci-fi tropes with retro monster movie characters from such "classics" as "The Blob," "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman."

Monsters vs. Aliens Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Monsters vs. Aliens
They kick: You really don't want to mess with these monsters. MONSTERS VS. ALIENS © 2009 DREAMWORKS ANIMATION L.L.C. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 3, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, who previously brought us "Shark Tale" and "Shrek 2," "Monsters vs. Aliens" is — like all Dreamworks animation — much more focused on pop-culture gags than its character-driven Pixar competitors. And, as usual, the results are pretty hit or miss, some absolutely brilliant gags mixed in with a lot of whiffs.

The story begins in Modesto, Calif., where a young bride named Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is about to wed her self-absorbed TV weatherman fiance Derek (Paul Rudd) when she's struck by a glowing meteorite. She gets up, dusts herself off, and is all ready to say "I do" when she suddenly starts growing wildly, bursting out of her bridal gown and eventually right through the roof of the church, as everyone flees in terror. The men-in-black arrive, sedate her, and whisk her away to a secret government facility where she's locked up with a bunch of other monsters.

"I'm not a monster," pleads Susan, but Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), who oversees the facility, insists she is and re-names her Ginormica. After an initial shock, Susan bonds with her cellmates, who include mad scientist Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. ((Hugh Laurie), defrosted lizardman The Missing Link (Will Arnett), gelatinous ooze B.O.B. (Seth Rogan), and a Mothra-sized grub named Insectosaurus. (Their "origin" stories are the film's best jokes, and I won't ruin them here.)

When a giant cyclopslike alien robot lands on earth and threatens to rain destruction down upon San Francisco, the president — presumably not a Republican — offers the monsters their freedom in exchange for taking out the death 'bot. This leads to a frantic chase through the deserted streets of downtown San Francisco, with Ginormica using a pair of abandoned cars as roller skates, and an exceptionally spectacular duel on the Golden Gate Bridge. There is of course another movie about battling giant robots out there this month, but "Monsters vs. Aliens" is the one with a sense of humor, that won't give you tinnitus, and — mercifully — doesn't have the name "Michael Bay" in the credits.

Technically, "Monsters vs. Aliens" is being billed as the wave of the future by Dreamworks; it's a film that was made specifically to take advantage of new 3-D technology, to offer an experience unparalleled till now. Surprisingly, given that this is the film's big selling point, media screenings for the film were in plain old vanilla 2-D, so I cannot report how incredible (or not) the 3-D effect might be. In terms of its animation, San Francisco and the other sets are rendered in surprising digital detail, while the human characters have the look of old-fashioned puppet animation, with huge heads resting on spindly bodies that move in a peculiar way; in Ginormica's case, it makes her look rather anorexic for a giant.

The film is great when it's firing on all cylinders in the action sequences, which are as funny as they are frenetic, and whenever Seth Rogan's stoner-slow B.O.B. gets a line, it's usually a good one, especially when his little blobby heart falls for a plate of lime-green jello. Rainn Wilson, as the peevish brainiac alien Gallaxhar — who sent the robot to attack Earth — manages to steal every scene he's in, while Stephen Colbert, a very funny guy, flounders with some weak material as the pompous president.

Notably, Reese Witherspoon — and the film as a whole — suffers from way too much of her screen-time being spent whining about her relationship with cad fiancee Derek, first about how she wants to shrink back to normal size so she can be happily married to him, then — after he dumps her like a bagful of Ebola virus — about how she wants to stay monster-sized, just to show the bastard.

It's interesting to note here the lessons Susan learns after becoming a monster; first, that it's OK to be different, which is pretty much the fallback position of every kid's movie these days. No surprise here. The other, though, is the notion that, gee, isn't it better to be big and strong and kicking alien butt than dependent on (sneer) some guy? Of course, even princesses are self-empowered in kid's flicks these days, but the idea that you don't need a romantic relationship to have a fulfilling life is quite a slice of feminist realism in place of kids' dreams. Of course, maybe we just have to wait for the sequel: "Attack of the 50-foot Biological Clock!"

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