'Monsters vs. Aliens' gathers creatures great and small for a tale with grand ambitions.
It's all about growth.
Susan Murphy is just a regular California gal on her wedding day when a meteor strikes, making her a redwood-sized bridezilla. Fiancé Derek, a vapid TV weatherman, never promised to love her for bigger and for smaller, and dumps her on the spot.
In short order Susan is shipped to a secret facility where the military houses mutants, including B.O.B. (more formally, Bicarbonate Ostylezene Benzoate), a one-eyed haystack of indestructible blue gelatin, and Dr. Cockroach, a preening man-insect scientist. When they're dispatched as mankind's last hope against nasty ETs, the likable misfits must table their differences and work together in ways that some selfish humans (ahem, Derek) have never learned. So really, it's all about growth.
"Monsters vs. Aliens" doesn't press much of a claim on your heart, your funnybone or your memory, but it's a pleasant enough gag reel. The new DreamWorks animated feature adheres to the studio's time-tested formula of packing in pop culture references until the screen stretches at the seams. It adds a second layer of self-referential humor, peppering the action with fanboy meta-gags (odd choice for a movie that is so girl-centric).
When astronomers spot an incoming spaceship, they declare a "Code Nimoy." The president of the United States tries to communicate with the aliens through a keyboard solo that opens with the five-note "Close Encounters" theme. "The Fly," "The Blob," "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "The Amazing 50-Foot Woman" all get their moment in the spotlight. It's elbow-in-the-ribs yuk mongering, a big step down after DreamWorks' delightful, emotion-tugging "Kung Fu Panda." I don't think there are any characters here that a child would love.
To be fair, they won't be bored, either. The movie, 3D in many theaters, is a lot of fun to look at. It opens with the old paddle-ball-in-the-face gag from "House of Wax," and every scene has a funky visual playfulness and warmth. The intergalactic invaders arrive in a spaceship that resembles a giant Michael Graves egg timer. There's an exhilarating excitement to the action scenes -- Susan jams her feet into a couple of convertibles and roller skates to the rescue when the space creeps attack San Francisco.
The destruction is of the kiddie-safe reverse neutron bomb variety. A lot of property is trashed -- including, thrillingly, the Golden Gate Bridge -- but nobody gets hurt. Except Susan, by that louse Derek. And she moves on, supported by her new, emotionally committed friends, as the bylaws of girl-power fables require. The script tosses grownups a bone fairly often: When a White House official summons the nation's top minds, somebody phones India.
The vocal cast is deep, but unevenly effective. Reese Witherspoon brings good cheer or chin-up determination to Susan as needed, and Seth Rogen's chortling B.O.B. sounds as warm and rough as corduroy, while Hugh Laurie, Kiefer Sutherland and Paul Rudd are merely serviceable.
The biggest casting coup is the chief disappointment. Stephen Colbert plays the president (perfect!) but he's far funnier in live action than a cartoon figure could hope to be. Computer animation is great and all, but there's nothing sillier than a real arched eyebrow.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186