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Movie Review: Monsters vs. Aliens

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DreamWorks Animation, always the bridesmaid at the box office, certainly has the technical chops to rival Pixar – there are moments in 3-D that are frighteningly realistic. Their problem repeatedly rests in the writing.Their most successful endeavor, the Shrek franchise, is a perfect example of just how the pen is mightier than the pixel.

While technically rich, the films are filled with of-the-minute pop culture references that boldly stamp an expiration date on their product. Whereas the Looney Tunes gang would at times do this, mocking Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and the like, those are all lasting, iconic characters. The same cannot be said for the already Where Are They Now-worthy Ricky Martin, Sir Mixx-a-Lott, and Bonnie Tyler that populate the Shrek films.

To their credit, Dreamworks has released a few superior animated films: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Flushed Away, and Chicken Run, all, coincidentally, made in part with the superior Aardman Animation Studios. The problem was, aside from Chicken Run, they were commercial “disappointments” that were heaped upon countless other DreamWorks animation casualties. I use quotes because, while they turned a profit, they came nowhere near touching the expected animation stratosphere that Pixar consistently reaches. Returning to similar territory as Were-Rabbit, Monsters vs. Aliens takes on beloved sci-fi and creature B-movies of the '50s, and keeps its necessity to punctuate every frame with timely pop culture winks to a minimum.

In fact, the aspect that really feels "in the moment" of Monsters is its talented cast of hip vocal actors. Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Stephen Colbert and Office mate Rainn Wilson all lend their pipes to the proceedings, with mixed results.The film itself in not the Valentine that was Were-Rabbit (seriously, pick this film up now, if you have not seen it!), but more of a "spot the nod" game for adults: "That was from The Day the Earth Stood Still," or "I remember that from The Amazing Colossal Man."

Speaking of "colossal," diminutive actress Reese Witherspoon stars as Susan, whose impending nuptials to a nogoodnik are dashed in typical sci-fi fashion, when a meteor plops on her outside the church. A glowing substance transforms her into Ginormica, a towering babe just an inch under 50 feet. She's hauled away to a top secret government location where she joins an elite team of genial genetic oddities, including:

  • Dr. Cockroach (voiced by House's Hugh Laurie, who’s so spot on it’s almost taken for granted how good he is), a mad scientist with a Vincent Price-like sliver of a 'stache.
  • B.O.B. (voiced by Rogen, who gets more mileage out of merely laughing than his reading his lines) a brainless gelatinous mass who mutated from a food additive.
  • The Missing Link (voiced by Arnett, playing GOB Bluth with fins), a creature whose urge to party could not be confined by a lagoon of any color.
  • Insectosaurus, a screeching boll weevil that is most likely Mothra's close cousin.

The creatures are unleashed when a multi-eyed intergalactic squid (voiced by an underwhelming Wilson) plans to enslave the human race. Even the US President (voiced by a lackluster Stephen Colbert) is helpless to stop the impending danger.

The jokes, as expected, come fast and furious, with about a 50-50 funny ratio. The action was not too far behind, but it still contained a surprising amount of downtime in a film with a title such as this.

There are a few incredibly staged 3-D set pieces, one involving a tangle on the Golden Gate Bridge that packs most of the film's money shots. But there are even more scenes that call into question the merit for the extra bucks forked over for the funky glasses.

While most of the kids will get neither the films or jokes referenced (unless your 3-year-old just loves him some House of Wax or can’t get enough Dr. Strangelove), they should be happily satiated by all the shiny set pieces and engaging monsters. And that is about all that is offered, which is still leaps and bounds from the studio's other animated fare, such as Shark Tale and Bee Movie.

And while the writing has not reached the timeless levels of its competitors at Pixar, it's markedly improved over the endless, random barrage of Family Guy-style winks to whatever is popular at the moment. (The film does occasionally dip its toes in that pond, with an already-dated Dance Dance Revolution segment and a Beverly Hills Cop musical interlude that serves little purpose but to throw parents a bone.)

It's not the Monster mush one might expect from the studio's past spotty track record, but without its talented cast, this alien invasion would have not been nearly as friendly.

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