The optimism with which I approached Monsters vs Aliens was not cautious. I was not expecting great things, but I had a quiet confidence in Dreamworks, despite my abiding hatred for Shrek and its hideous bastard offspring. When the opening credits finished with the line “and Stephen Colbert as The President”, I lost it. I was determined to enjoy Monsters vs Aliens, and that’s precisely what I came away with.
I should probably make clear once more that I am a fan of animation. While that means I can be a harsh critic of “cartoons”, it also means that I’m more inclined to like them than Joe Q. Public who is indifferent to the whole exercise. It’s an important distinction, because it’s not a form (animation is not a genre) that I simply view as “take or leave”. Wall-E and The Incredibles are included among my favourite films in general, not just in the field of animation.
Having said that, Monsters vs Aliens is not a Pixar level film (then again, neither was Cars). That doesn’t stop it from being a consistently entertaining movie with a semi-clear to somewhat muddied moral. As a general audience movie, I don’t know how it would fare and, as is always the case with this sort of stuff, many of the best jokes likely won’t be understood by the target audience of children. (Axel F., for crying out loud!)
Susan (Reece Witherspoon) is hit by a meteorite on her wedding day and turns into a giant, who is instantly abducted by the government and put in containment with their other monsters: Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the gelatinous B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), fish and ladies’ man The Missing Link (Will Arnett) and Insectasaurus, a 350 foot tall insect. When Earth is threatened by an alien presence, the monsters are despatched to get rid of it. Along the way Susan learns a vital lesson about gleaning worth from one’s self rather than hanging all of your esteem on another person.
Monsters vs Aliens, with its very workmanlike title, has no pretensions of having a large and far-reaching story: there’s a three week gap in which Susan gets to know the other monsters – and there’s not even a montage to take up the time to explain this, it’s simply implied, which suggests a sense of trust in the audience on the part of the directors – but before and after that everything is immediate. Any attempt to actually give a back story or motivation to the villainous Galaxar is waved away in a way that either denotes laziness or the simple fact that it doesn’t really matter and this isn’t that sort of movie.
Despite that, character arcs are still in evidence, from Susan’s learning to believe in herself (albeit through the acquisition of super powers which she did nothing to earn) to, surprisingly, the Missing Link, who has a tender relationship with Insectasaurus despite being Gob in fish-ape-man guise (come on!). I’m not going to pretend that there’s not a formula to these things, and that is represented in the form of B.O.B., who easily steals the show in exactly the way that he is expected to at every opportunity available. It’s impossible to complain about such a good naturedly stupid character, especially when he is matched for stupidity by the villains.
President “Pappa Bear” is, of course, pretty much Colbert in animated form, and president. The character also allows for a more even distribution of “film’s best lines” than would otherwise have been afforded.
Technically the film is impressive, although I’m still not sold on the idea of making every CG movie in 3D – especially as a 3D movie is $21 odd a pop. The characters are designed in such a way that the audience can instantly judge them – from the friendly monsters to Paul Rudd’s jerkface Derek to the hideous Galaxar. Dreamworks has sworn this is the way we’re seeing all of their animations from now on, though, so we’d best get used to it. I’ll admit that I haven’t looked up anything about the fate of the Monsters vs Aliens franchise, yet, because I made the mistake of finding out that about five follow-ups to Kung Fu Panda were already planned and I fell into a catatonic state for about a week. I’m going to assume there’s going to be more of this franchise (more monsters! More aliens! More toys!), but for the moment I’m treating this as a standalone and I did not find it wanting.
If you’re in the mood for an animated film, you could do far worse than Monsters vs Aliens. I should know; I watched the trailers that screened along side it.