What does it say about the current state of cinema that "Monsters vs. Aliens," animated in a '50s retro style, albeit with an assist from the latest in 3-D technology, and aimed roughly at the under-12 set, turns out to be the movie making one of the strongest statements about female empowerment out there today?
It is Reese Witherspoon's Susan, a small-town Modesto girl with modest dreams, who ultimately crashes right through the glass ceiling of the old-boys-network of monsters -- both metaphorically and literally, all five stories of her -- to lead a band of mutant brothers on a mission to save the world.
The film also creates one of the most endearing characters around, and frankly one of the best roles for slacker guys this year, in Seth Rogen's B.O.B., a sweetly optimistic and slightly slow (and I mean that in every way you might imagine) blob of gelatinous blue something, with a single eye and no brain -- and he's better for it, especially the brain part.
Though "Monsters vs. Aliens" is far from the first time an animated film has come with a relevant cultural message (last year's Oscar-winning "Wall-E" had more than a few things to say about consumerism and how we treat the environment), but let's just agree that this story-time version of Feminism 101 is a good thing. Meanwhile, it's surprisingly satisfying to watch Susan and the boys take on a giant robot, an evil alien lord in the form of the many-tentacled purple Rainn (as in Wilson) named Galaxhar, the military (yet again, it cannot be trusted), the media and self-esteem (Susan's needs bolstering, her fiance Derek's -- played by Paul Rudd -- needs puncturing) for the good of all man- and woman-kind.
Much is being made of "Monsters vs. Aliens' " 3-D features and the revolution it represents (at least in the ads you absolutely cannot miss even if you're trying hard). It's nice in theory -- there are cool bits thrown in here and there with the random meteor to dodge or the floating teacup and spoon -- but the truth is "Monsters vs. Aliens" doesn't need them to work as a film, and they never feel like anything more than extras that have been thrown into the mix just because the filmmakers have the power tools to do it. There is no real exploration, and realization, of the possibilities of the technology that you will see in the lovely darkness of Henry Selick's totally 3-D-infused "Coraline," a seamless integration of story and visual style.
What directors Rob Letterman, who also wrote and directed "Shark Tale," and Conrad Vernon, who directed "Shrek 2," focus on in their first teaming is telling the story, which they both had a hand in creating, with Letterman also participating in the team sport that is the animation screenplay (credit also goes to Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger).
The plot here is simple. Meteor hits Susan on the head on her wedding day. Plans change.
Instead of heading into the sunset, in this case Fresno, which has just offered local weatherman/soon-to-be-husband Derek a job, she's transformed into an enormous version of herself. It's never easy to be different, and Susan pays for this crime by being immediately captured by the military and locked up in a super-secret prison with all the other monsters they've been collecting over the years.
Here Susan begins the process of getting in touch with her inner Ginormica, which happens to be the label given her by the very un-PC Gen. W.R. Monger, voiced by "24's" Kiefer Sutherland, who perhaps knows better than anyone about the nefarious double-dealing done in the name of the U.S. government. But as often happens (certainly on "24"), sometimes the monsters are the only ones who can save you.
When a towering, lethal and unstoppable robot lands to retrieve the powerful, precious stuff that made Susan grow so tall, the call comes and the prison doors are unlocked. Ginormica and B.O.B. are joined by the brilliant Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, clearly having fun with this mutant mad scientist role); the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a half-ape, half-fish macho man of a beast; and a giant grub called Insectorsaurus, whose squeaks are credited to no one. Many battles ensue. Enlightenment comes to the land.
The dialogue has its share of the sly grown-up/cultural references that have become de rigueur for DreamWorks projects, designed to make sure the adults in the audience don't fidget, but there aren't enough of them to push this into full-fledged comedy mode. Which means it's up to the action/thriller elements to power the film, and they are never quite bold enough.
So it comes down to the story and the voice actors to carry the day, and they have their moments -- particularly the monster crew led by a feisty Witherspoon, who brings some of the edgy-fun of her "Election" mean-girl to Susan as she grows stronger.
The clean lines of the film's 1950s retro look work well with the uncluttered, straightforward tale, and the filmmakers' nod to that era's B-movies is a nice one.
In fact "nice" is the adjective that seems to surface most in trying to pin down the film's most salient quality, which means that while the film is enjoyable enough, it is unlikely to become a classic for us, or a "Shrek" sort of franchise for DreamWorks.
As for Susan? She wins some battles, loses others, stops wishing she'd return to normal and embraces her inner-warrior princess -- now that's a happy ending.
'Monsters vs. Aliens'
MPAA rating: PG for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In wide release