I have to hand it to Dreamworks. As easy as it is to churn out sequel after sequel — and they certainly do so, with Shrek having four films and a spinoff, and Madagascar on its third film — they also take shots at some different concepts. Monsters vs Aliens says exactly what it is upfront, but while it would be easy to expect a children’s movie with such a clear-cut premise to be simply a brainless bash, it is actually a fun and funny film — which certain adults may even enjoy more than the children in the audience, as the team of writers and directors (headed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon) crafted a film that, while perhaps not particularly deep, is very much aware of its lineage and its own general silliness.
The story starts with Susan Murphy, voiced by Reese Witherspoon. The film uses a lot of celebrity voices, but doesn’t fall victim to the frequent problem of the voice actor’s fame dominating the character; when hearing Susan speak, it feels natural and doesn’t call Witherspoon to mind. Susan is preparing for her wedding when she’s struck by a radioactive meteor. Mid-ceremony, she begins glowing and growing, achieving gargantuan heights and wrecking both the ceremony and the church. The military is called in to subdue her, even though she’s not rampaging intentionally.
Fortunately she bought her dress at Bruce Banner’s Big & Tall Emporium.
Susan — dubbed “Ginormica” by the military — is kept in a secured facility with other “monsters”. Just as Susan is an homage to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, her fellow monsters are also takes on monster movies from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s the Missing Link — Link to his friends — voiced by Will Arnett, who bears a passing (i.e., non-trademark-infringing) resemblance to the Gill Man from The Creature of the Black Lagoon. Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., voiced by Hugh Laurie, is an obvious take on The Fly. And, of course, there’s Seth Rogen’s B.O.B., a cheerful friendly version of The Blob. Being an introductory story, and primarily focusing on Susan’s character growth (no pun intended), there isn’t a lot of time devoted to the personalities of these guys, and they most just get broad strokes characterizations — but it’s enough to make them entertaining individuals in their own right, and to show how they work together as a team. Link is a bit gruff and has a strong sense of machismo, deflated somewhat due to letting himself go during his several decades of lockup. Dr. Cockroach is an unrepentant mad scientist, prone to diabolical laughter, but who also likes to consider himself a sophisticate. B.O.B. is literally brainless, and is certainly the most kid-oriented character, prone to a ton of comic misunderstandings.
When an alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) sends a robot to Earth, the U.S. military finds itself unable to oppose the robot. The President calls on General W.R. Monger to save the day, and his solution is to offer the monsters their freedom if they can stop the robot. President Hathaway and General Monger are voiced by Stephen Colbert and Kiefer Sutherland, and they’re in steady competition for the most entertaining voice acting jobs in the film. Both are perfectly cast (of course, Hathaway is modeled after Colbert to some degree), and both get several good lines which are executed with just slightly over-the-top delivery to emphasize the nature of their characters.
The fate of the world is in their capable hands.
Kids will enjoy this film for its fun plot and the kid-oriented jokes, such as most of what B.O.B. does. But adults may get even more fun out of it. The plot may not be terribly complicated, but it’s no simpler than most animated fare, and has a modicum of emotional depth with Susan’s sense of isolation and the character development she goes through as she learns her old life wasn’t necessarily all that it was cracked up to be. And it feels like most of the jokes are aimed at adults, particularly those who have a solid movie-watching background. There are references and shout-outs to films from all decades and genres; never in a dated way (such as the Matrix kick in Shrek), but in ways that serve the story or are just quick little sight gags. There are references to everything from The Amazing Colossal Man to E.T., to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even Beverly Hills Cop. And the non-reference jokes are also very well done, with great comic timing and an assumption that the audience is sharp enough to pick up on a sense of irony. Even the more juvenile jokes are usually very funny, thanks to the expert delivery of the comics Rogen and Colbert, who get the bulk of those lines.
It’s a fun movie, and a very funny one, whether for kids or for adults. It’s one I could easily enjoy watching again.