I know this is going to sound familiar, but I absolutely adore feature-length animation. It bugs me that the medium is STILL -- a mere 900 years after Snow White came out -- considered "kids only" by a large portion of the population. Even my mom, who was moved to tears by Beauty and the Beast, absolutely adores Toy Story, and cites Sleeping Beauty as an all-time fave, turns her nose up when I offer her a DVD like Flushed Away or The Iron Giant. (Or Fear(s) of the Dark.) "Meh," she says, "that's kiddy stuff." But I know that if she actually sat down and focused on, say, The Incredibles -- she'd start to see what I see: An eye-tickling landscape of endless cinematic opportunities.

And here's where I kick the chair out from under you by saying that Monsters vs. Aliens is NOT one of those transcendent animated features, the sort that bridges the gap between kid stuff and grown-up art with no discernible effort whatsoever. No, Monsters vs. Aliens is a loud, rushed, choppy, silly, colorful Nintendo game of a movie, and if you're judging an 88-minute family flick by those specific criteria, then odds are you'll have a diverting time with DreamWorks' new production. But if you're looking for the artistry, the warmth, or the extra dimensions of a Pixar production, I'd say you wait for Up, or just lower expectations where Monsters vs. Aliens is concerned. The problems lie not within the field if visual coolness. Like all of DreamWorks' animated films (Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Shrek), Monsters vs. Aliens sure looks like a billion bucks. From the cleverly-rendered monsters to the flashy set pieces and all the lovely landscapes in between, the movie is a feast for the retina. (Especially if you see it in 3-D!) And the concept is certainly nifty enough: That the Earth is being invaded by mean aliens, and the only ones who can save us are a bunch of monsters that our government has kept locked up for decades. The voice actors are fun, the action scenes are cool, and there's a lot of plain ol' pleasantness right up there on the screen.

Yet ... aside from the basic-yet-nifty premise of, yes, monsters battling aliens, the film has no idea where it wants to go. We seem to be treated to one (rather clumsy) character arc as we see poor Susan Murphy (aka Ginormica) go from blushing bride to massive freak to liberated woman, but all of this stuff feels like filler material -- narrative lip service paid as passage to bolt from one action scene to the next. Problem is, Susan is not that interesting of a character, her development is clunky and scattershot, and the scenes between her and her callous ex-boyfriend (Paul Rudd) do nothing but drag the film to a halt.

The problem, quite simply, is the screenplay. What began as the cool concept I just mentioned has become a framework on which to hang a long line of wheezing jokes. From the obtuse president (a thoroughly misused Stephen Colbert) and his Axel F. Theme references to the bored banter of the otherwise charming monsters, the flick feels like it was written, re-written, and hastily mega-re-written until nobody could really tell what was FUNNY anymore. (Between "screenplay" and "story," the flick went through at least seven writers.) The only consistent chuckles come from a goofy blue blob with the voice of Seth Rogen, and those giggles come mainly from the actor's enthusiasm for the part -- not from any jokes that are all that snappy.

The rest of the voice cast -- Reese Witherspoon as a heroic giant of a woman, Kiefer Sutherland as a gruff general, Hugh Laurie as a brilliant cockroach, Will Arnett as a Black Lagoon-type gill-creature, Rainn Wilson as an evil robot overlord -- seem to be on board for either marquee value or comedy cred ... but virtually none of 'em are allowed to kick back and make with the FUNNY. Such are the constraints of animated comedy, I suppose, but DreamWorks has made lots of funny flicks (I still love Over the Hedge!) without sacrificing anything in the story department.

But these are slightly grown-up complaints being tossed in the face of a big, wacky action / comedy that the kids (especially little boys) will adore, and the adults will dig just enough to stay awake. If Monsters vs. Aliens had aimed its sights in just a slightly more mature direction (for the folks who actually GREW UP on monster movies and alien epics), I'd be calling it one of my favorite animated flicks of the past ten years. As it stands, it's passable, slight, flashy, often fun and amusing, but nothing more ... and therefore a relative disappointment in my book.
categories Reviews, Sci-Fi