The concept is higher than the execution in “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a funny enough animated faceoff between some famous monsters of filmland and would-be conquerors of Planet Earth. More congenial and less crass than some of DreamWorks Animation’s big titles, this why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before dust-up involving one-of-a-kind mutants and space invaders boasts sufficient jokes and eye-popping action, especially in the preferred 3-D format, to more or less satisfy anyone attracted to the premise. All the same, that extra inspiration needed to truly knock this one out of the park is noticeably missing. Even if not as many 3-D venues are ready to show the film as Par and DreamWorks had originally anticipated, the heavily promoted picture looks to dominate commercially during the early spring, followed by outsized ancillary returns and a likely sequel.
“Destroy All Monsters!” is the mission of the hostile interlopers here, and it’s also the title of the 1968 Japanese picture that had the bright idea of throwing numerous superstar behemoths together in one big monster mash. The brains behind the new picture, Rob Letterman (writer-director of “Shark Tale”) and Conrad Vernon (director of “Shrek 2”), could have minted some fresh creatures for their battle of the titans, but instead they have drawn on some legendary sci-fi critters of the ’50s to step into the breach and battle an enemy against which conventional armed forces haven’t got a chance.
In a picture that could quite accurately be described as ” ‘Monsters, Inc.’ Meets ‘War of the Worlds,’ ” the filmmakers flex their 3-D muscles right out of the gate with some nifty asteroid-belt vistas and, in a cutely self-conscious gag, having the first human character bounce a rubber-band paddle ball straight at the audience. With that out of the way, the pic gets down to the urgent business of sexy Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) having her wedding to preening TV weatherman Derek (Paul Rudd) interrupted by a crashing meteor. Infected by its oozy contents, Susan undergoes an alarming growth spurt, stopping just one inch short of the amazing 50-foot woman.
Not yet realizing her luck at having been saved from marriage to Derek, Susan gets tied down like Gulliver and, newly resplendent with striking platinum-white hair and a provocatively stretched and torn wardrobe, is spirited away to a top-secret prison for freaks who must be hidden from the general public. There’s B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), an indestructible, one-eyed glob of blue who gobbles up anything; Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), a diminutive scientist with a bug’s noggin; the Missing Link (Will Arnett), an ungainly humanoid/amphibian fusion; and Insectosaurus, a larval entity of indeterminate origin who’s seven times taller than the female newcomer, now known as Ginormica.
Given that all these outcasts have been locked up for years under life sentences, they’re a remarkably personable bunch, prone to jokes and a tendency to look on the bright side. As it happens, their optimism is justified; what’s bad for mankind — the arrival of an enormous, bullet-shaped robot (also one-eyed) with infernal intentions — is good for the MonSquad. With the ineffectual U.S. president (Stephen Colbert) unable to conciliate with the aliens via the theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the monster prisoners’ Cold Warrior guardian Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) promises they’ll be freed if they can defeat the seemingly impregnable enemy.
Setup is fine, as is the sheer spectacle of the outsized combatants stomping through San Francisco on their way to a showdown at the Golden Gate Bridge as thousands flee. But a host of minor issues, none of them too debilitating on its own, combine to create a feeling of moderate underachievement.
Because of the kid-friendly intentions, no one and no thing can die, which is a bit of a problem in either a monster or alien battle-picture. Since the human among the monsters, Susan/Ginormica, is far and away the center of the script’s attention, the filmmakers’ strain at giving the others anything significant to do is sorely felt; often, her monster cohorts seem as peripheral and uninteresting as the woodland critters that hung out with Snow White. These monsters have been neutered and, with the principal male humans (Derek, the president, Gen. Monger) all made to be vain and ridiculous, the film becomes an all-too-rote female empowerment story.
That said, boys and men of all ages will have little to complain about with Ginormica, who’s a pretty hot number in the mode of her vocalist, Witherspoon; she’s made deliberately sexy enough to feature in some James Bond-style silhouetted end-credits gymnastics. When she comes back home for a brief visit and Derek unceremoniously dumps her, guys will be lining up mentally to take his place with this Amazon, whose fate as a woman without a height-appropriate mate will have to await a sequel (which evidence indicates will at least begin in Paris).
Once the robot is vanquished, Ginormica and her crew must contend with its maker, the nefarious Galaxhar (Rainn Wilson, twirling a verbal moustache) who arrives on his sinister-looking spaceship with the attitude that, if you want anything done right, like taking over Earth, you’d better do it yourself. This megalomaniacal four-eyed squid can produce an unlimited army of identical clones and looks pretty unbeatable until the monsters creatively pool their talents.
“Monsters vs. Aliens” is a film of chuckles, smiles and light amusement rather than big laughs, galvanizing excitement and original invention. Because the characters based on the Blob, the Fly, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Mothra have been transformed from threatening mutants into benign figures of fun, they possess marginal narrative usefulness, which stands as the picture’s central disappointment.
Cast voicings and tech contributions are tip-top.