Monsters vs. Aliens is probably the most critic-proof movie title since “Naked Women Fight The Terminator”. Both spark fevered excitement from 15-year-old boys around the world, including myself (who may theoretically be much older, but is always happy to regress). MVA isn’t aimed at teenage boys though. Its phasers are set to stun easier-to-please younglings; those that aren’t necessarily opposed to scenes that are punctuated by people falling over, simply because it makes a funny “crash!” sound. And no, “Naked Women Fight the Terminator” is not yet a movie, although my 15-year-old mind is writing it as we speak. But, I should really focus on the task at hand.
In the way that Shrek spoofed fairy tales and Kung Fu Panda took on kung-fu films, Dreamworks’ Monsters vs. Aliens lovingly mocks those classically awful invasion pictures of the fifties. When a four-eyed, many-tentacled alien braniac called Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) invades Earth, the U.S. Government are rightfully frightened. Gallaxhar plans to enslave the human race because, well, umm, well he doesn’t have to explain it to YOU! Humanity’s only chance may lie with a ragtag group of Monsters that have been imprisoned for the past fifty years. They include the macho, mid-life crisis experiencing Missing Link (Will Arnett); mad professor/cockroach, Dr Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a brainless gelatinous blob called B.O.B (Seth Rogen) and a giant insect/dinosaur called Insectasaurus (which is actually kind-of cute).
The latest addition to the team is Susan (Reese Witherspoon), a sweet young woman who, after being struck by a meteor on her wedding day, turned into a 49 1/2ft giant. At first, she pines for her old life with her obnoxious fiancé Derek (Paul Rudd). But when she realizes she can actually pose a threat to the giant alien hordes – well, it’s pretty much as good a confidence boost you can get. Witherspoon is great as Susan (later renamed Ginormica), but not even the Oscar-winner can compete with Seth Rogen for the hearts of viewers. His bear-like chuckle generated the biggest laughs of the film, and his B.O.B. is worth the price of admission alone.
If Frost/Nixon is the most intelligent end of the showdown spectrum, MVA sits just above Alien vs. Predator at the “hey, people will pay to see this no matter how bad it is” end. Of course, that’s not to say Monsters vs. Aliens is bad. However, calling it anything particularly special would be completely inaccurate. The film has some serious problems, the first being – and yes, I feel ridiculous for even attributing this complaint to a film with the above title – a completely pat narrative that seriously lacks character development. Aside from Susan, who is a pretty engaging lead character, the monsters don’t actually do anything. The villain’s motivations remain completely unknown – a fact that the film goes out of its way to remind us of. I get the joke, but it completely removes any steam that the film built in its opening half hour. By the time the ending rolls around, you realise that the filmmakers haven’t fully delivered on their one simple premise.
But those are lowlights, and there are plenty of highlights to report. The animation is pretty great, and it features some of the best looking humans in animated form yet. The heavily promoted 3-D is also quite spectacular, adding a magnificent layer of depth and richness to an already beautiful film. Thankfully, the effect is not used ad nauseum, with only one of those annoying scenes where things are intentionally thrown at the audience. A thrilling sequence set on the Golden Gate Bridge hints at the intentionally cheesy action film I would have loved to see more of.
I hate to go back to the same old argument, but put any Dreamworks film up against a Pixar feature, and it’s like putting Brett Ratner up against Martin Scorcese. Pixar have gotten into the habit of creating full, rich worlds inhabited by intriguing, lovable characters. They’re like the finest chef’s in the world making delectable three course meals. Dreamworks rely too much on pop-cultural references, they retreat to clichéd themes and don’t put too much effort into the script. They make candy – great in the moment, but ultimately unsatisfying, forgettable and kind of bad for you. But what can I say. Kids love candy. And deep down, that’s exactly what I am.