I try to take the animation genre less seriously. I try and look it as a series of “cute” family films never intended to be “good cinema.” But then Pixar always comes along and raises my bar.
You know what? This movie is funny. There are pop-culture references (including a Close Encounters homage involving a Casio keyboard that had me actually laughing out loud), and there are some really good one-liners. My favorite of which: “By Hawkins’ chair!”
The action sequences are fun. There is a rampage through San Francisco that has some clever set pieces, funny moments, and great pacing.
If you’re looking for fun kid’s stuff with some “adult” humor and a lot of eye candy, this one is for you, especially in 3D.
The problems with the movie, though, come in the story. It feels cobbled together in the most convenient of ways–based on market research, test groups and a feeble attempt to squeeze the winning formula from Shrek and even Finding Nemo (I’m referring to Seth Rogen’ character, a brainless, gelatinous blob that is constantly forgetting things and saying dumb lines–just like Dora only less endearing).
The story kicks off with the wedding of our main character, Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon). When a mysterious meteorite crashes into her on her wedding day, though, she grows into a monstrous and super-strong woman and is promptly removed from her weatherman-hubby and taken to a secret government facility.
There she learns that the government has been capturing and keeping monsters for the past fifty years. She meets a group of other monsters ranging from a super-smart cockroach to an amphibious “missing link” to a giant puff-ball with pincers dubbed “Insectosaurus.” The warden (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) informs Susan (in the nicest of ways so we don’t hate him later when he’s important to the plot) that she will never see her family again and will be locked in this secret facility for the rest of her life. Susan gets sad.
But you know that space rock that crashed to Earth? Well, an Alien named Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson) wants whatever super-substance has given Susan super powers, so he sends a probe to earth to get it. The motley crew of monsters is let loose to stop the alien menace, and Monsters vs. Aliens ensues.
There is an entire subplot of female empowerment that got on my nerves. From frame one it’s clear that Susan’s hubby is a total douche bag, but we’re supposed to feel bad for her when he rejects her after she has become “the 50 foot woman?” It’s kind of convenient and insulting. As if this weren’t bad enough, they keep bringing this character back so Susan can show how “empowered” she is, and we can see him get his just desserts.
And there is the problem with the warden–named General W. R. Monger. You read that right. This is not a film of subtlety. His over-the-top drill sergeant routine, coupled with his intense patriotism and oddly kind words, are supposed to make us (and the monster characters) like him–even though he has kept some of these poor creatures locked up for over 50 years. Why? Because it’s convenient for the story.
There’s a lot of sloppy storytelling on display here. Whenever the writers reached a difficult story point, it seems, they just threw their hands up in the air, inserted a “clever” and self-referential piece of dialogue and went about their merry way.
Take a scene onboard Galaxhar’s spacecraft for example. Our team disguises themselves (terribly) as aliens. And all the aliens fall for it. For a very long time. Is it kinda funny? Sure. But it also allows our characters to set up the climax of the movie and stay out of harm’s way until it’s convenient for the plot to have them be in danger. Once again, a compelling story is sacrificed for the sake of a quick joke and a series of convenient plot points. In the end, you might laugh a few times, but you aren’t really going to care about the characters or what is happening to them on-screen.
But the biggest problem with this movie is the main villain, the bulbous-headed alien Gallaxhar. The movie thinks it’s trying to be clever by spoofing aliens in b-movies, but Gallaxhar is the least threatening, most goofy and kid-friendly nemesis I’ve seen in a movie. He goes out of his way to do evil-genius things, makes dumb mistakes, hatches end-of-the world plans and makes jokes about them. There was only one joke coming from this character that I found remotely funny (a cute little bond-villain-monologue reference), but most of the time he is everything I hate about kids movies that are going for a quick and self-referential laugh.
Without a good villain, there is no real danger, no compelling story, and no real reason to care about what is happening on-screen. Which Monsters vs. Aliens wants you to do. It has big action set pieces, character “deaths,” moments of realization and dramatic, suspenseful aspirations. The goal of this movie isn’t “just to be funny” like a Will Ferrell film. It wants to tell a story, and it wants you to care. It fails in both regards.
If you are looking for some good jokes, though, I must admit that this will satisfy. If you are a parent looking to take your kids to something they will enjoy and allow you the freedom of not gouging your eyes out over, this is a fairly good choice. But only AFTER you’ve seen Coraline.
Maybe I am being too hard on this movie. Maybe my standards are just too high. In the end, it’s ten times better than movies like Madagascar 2 or Ice Age. But it ain’t no Incredibles either.
In the end I can’t hate this movie. But I will never love it. And I doubt I’ll ever get the urge to watch it again.