There’s a scene in Monsters vs. Aliens where the President of the United States of America (either voiced by the real Stephen Colbert or the fictional one) stands in front of a giant alien robot with only a keyboard in between. Of course, he starts smoothing out the same chords that the military scientists play in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When that has no effect, he busts out into a funk-tastic one-man version of the “Axel F Suite” aka the “Theme Song to Beverly Hills Cop.” It’s a moment that no ten year old will get followed by one that has them dancing around in their seats having such a good time that these totally theoretical children kick the back of my seat while I’m at a screening.
Placing adult humor into children’s movies is nothing new, but it’s definitely a solid goal for any animated film aimed at the kids. Give the children some bright flashy characters that can easily be melted down off the screen and into plastic toy molds while giving the parents some clever humor and references to keep their mind working outside the sugar coating of sweetness. Monsters vs. Aliens achieves this and then some.
After a horrifying accident with a glowing meteorite turns Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) into a giant, she’s drugged and imprisoned by the government in a secret facility run by General W.R. Monger (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland). There, she meets the misfit crew of monsters that the government has procured over the years – a mad roach scientist (voiced by Hugh Laurie), a fish-humanoid found in Antarctica (voiced by Will Arnett), a blob of blue goop (voiced by Seth Rogen) and a 50-story tall beast that looks like a gerbil mated with a glo-worm. When the evil alien Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson) attacks earth, the government releases the monsters to fight the incoming menace.
Despite the fact that I could have ended that synopsis with “Somewhere along the way, everyone learns a lesson,” the film does have a lot to offer beyond the usual child-hood stickiness of fuzzy characters being nice to each other and teaching our children about kindness or glitter. As mentioned before, Monsters vs. Aliens achieves that basic goal of offering something to both age groups, but one of the great things about the movie is that all of the references placed in the script specifically for the grown ups will most likely take them back to their own childhood. The movie works by taking all of those great science fiction moments that many of us grew up with and bringing them back in a way that rewards the audience for getting the allusion, but also by shrinking them back down to the age they were when they first saw Close Encounters or any number of 1950s style B-movies.
If anything, this film could get accused of being fairly average fair, especially within the context of what animated movies have achieved as of recently. The story is simple and almost visibly marks off each plot point checkpoint that it’s supposed to reach. However, tucked away are a lot of little absurd moments and one-liners from well-utilized side characters that keep the momentum going in the right direction. Of course, the most obvious stand out in holding that part of the film up is Seth Rogen’s B.O.B. who flirts with Jello, stops for a hotdog during a fight, and is constantly convinced that he’s living Susan’s life for some reason. The cynical may claim that all of these elements are still too basic to work, but I’d contend that any parents with a ten year old will be laughing more than checking their watch to see how much they’re going to owe the babysitter.
The movie is not going to make a huge impact emotionally. It’s an average story with solid characters going through a journey and coming out on the other side of that a little wiser. And, yes, from time to time the science fiction references are done in the easiest way possible, so much so that they seem more on display than quietly slipped in. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some hard to find ones (e.g. after The President finishes his jam session, and they attack the robot, the film score that plays is still based off of that chord sequence from Close Encounters) but they are definitely fewer and more far between.
The animation isn’t attempting to edge closer and closer to the photorealism of Pixar, but it’s leagues away from the Dreamworks, cartoonish staple Shrek. The look of the film is a bit hyper-real, which obviously works well for animation, but the humans actually look like humans if not just a bit augmented.
But this movie, despite being standard Happy Meal fare, does achieve something a bit larger than itself. It should give parents of children in a certain age range the opening they need to share some of their favorite movies with their children. For some, it will open a dialog about which characters they like and give some science fiction fans the moment they need to share something they love with the next generation.
Overall, Monsters vs. Aliens is a fun film. Simple. It’s flashy enough for the kids and smart enough for parents. It probably won’t make you cry or warm your heart as hot as some other animated flicks, but it’s silly, supported by a strong voice cast, showcases some solid animation, and if a few more members of the next generation get curious enough to watch The Day The Earth Stood Still because of it, even better.