Monsters vs. Aliens

In theaters.

My thinking on this movie is utterly predictable, but I can’t help it. The most noteworthy thing about the animated Monsters vs. Aliens is that it’s a major studio flick featuring a woman as the central protagonist with a character arc that is not about getting the guy. Quick! How many other big tent-pole movies can you think of that fit that simple description? It’s ridiculously unusual and thus disproportionately endearing. The rest of the movie is cute enough—I enjoyed it—but it’s Susan and her story who stand out.

Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is a normal young woman until she’s hit by a glowing meteor on the day of her wedding to a self-centered TV weatherman (Paul Rudd). Exposure to the alien rock turns her Godzilla-sized, and a secret branch of the U.S. government whisks her away to join its other secured monsters: Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist infused with insect DNA; the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a unfrozen and revived prehistoric man-fish; Insectosaurus, a radiation-exposed bug even larger than post-meteor Susan; and B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), an indestructible gelatinous blob come to life, if not exactly intelligent life. The odd fivesome expect to spend the rest of their lives in captivity, but when an aggressive alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) invades earth, the buffoonish president (Stephen Colbert) agrees that no one is better suited to fight him than the team of monsters.

The whole thing is pretty silly, a string of parodic gags on other movies, but the stellar voice cast enlivens the goofiness far beyond its deserving. Rogen’s B.O.B. is particularly fun. The creature might not have two brain cells to rub together, but Rogen gives him a delightfully cheery demeanor. He and the animators make imbecility look cute.

Unfortunately, the animators don’t do much for the look of the movie on the whole. The characters are all adorably stylized, but the 3-D effects are a massive distraction. I truly don’t understand the allure of the technology. It doesn’t make the visuals more immersive; it just fractures them and calls attention to their artificiality

And that’s a shame because underneath the dopey pop-culture gags and gimmicky 3-D work is a sweet story populated with genuinely funny, appealing characters. The protagonist, Susan, has a lovely heroic arc, first chafing under the greatness that has been thrust upon her and then embracing and reclaiming that greatness along with her independence and sense of self-worth. For all my mixed feelings about it, Monsters vs. Aliens really does offer much to admire and enjoy. It’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t trust in its goodness enough to let those elements—the character-driven humor and the bubbly, cartoony aesthetic—sell the movie. Monsters vs. Aliens doesn’t need a generic gag-machine weighing it down, and without that, the movie might have been something special rather than something pleasant but forgettable.