16 January 2011

Movies I Missed (Part 1): Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Even as both an avid fan of cinema and regular film reviewer, it’s more or less impossible to see every movie that goes into wide release. Sure the progression in home entertainment makes it easier to play catch-up, but little things like work, socializing and other interests ensure that even in these DVD filled times major films still occasionally slip through my grasp.

As a result I have decided to concoct a series of articles entitled “Movies I missed”, a look at recent fare that evaded me whilst on theatrical release. I should make it clear that the series isn’t an attempt by me to power through a whole heap of unseen classics (there’s enough of that happening on the web surely), but rather a look at 21st Century flicks I either intentionally or accidentally bypassed during my ongoing cinematic travels. Another disclaimer might be that the films chosen for this selection of articles are likely to be reasonably well regarded efforts (There’s not enough time in the world to bother with overlooked gems such as “St. Trinian’s” or “Basic Instinct 2”), but I’m sure the odd clunker will turn up now and again. The first picture I’ve decided to examine is 2009’s “Monster vs. Aliens”, a movie that I was actually quite looking forward to pre-release. However after missing its initial run I failed to remember the caper, a fact not helped by the lack of fan loyalty the film seems to have cultivated over the last 20 months.

Monsters vs. Aliens
Release year – 2009
Worldwide Box-Office: $381,509,870
Critical reaction – Generally positive (71% on Rotten Tomatoes)

I have to confess a mild sense of disappointment when it comes to “Monsters vs. Aliens”, a smart concept undone by a shallow script. The film definitely has its moments, and has a respectable roster of belly laughs at its disposal, but sadly the final sermon and plot developments reek of the conventional mood that has haunted much of DreamWorks’ recent fare. A pastiche of cheesy 1950s’ sci-fi flicks, the film has its heart in the right place, but the execution could use notable improvement.

The movie follows a ragtag group of government detained monsters, most notably Ginormica (a 50-foot woman who suffered her tragic growth spurt at the altar) voiced shrilly by Reese Witherspoon. With an alien invasion pending, the USA is forced to use these beasts in order to combat the hostile newcomers, the ultimate goal being the survival of mankind.

First let’s start with what works about this production. With the exception of an uncharacteristically irritating Witherspoon, the vocal artists really do an excellent job. Seth Rogen (playing an idiotic gelatinous blob) and Hugh Laurie (a mad scientist in the body of a human/cockroach hybrid) are the obvious highlights, both performers bringing the majority of the movie’s guffaws. Rogen in particular displays a knack for kid friendly silliness, bandying his improvisational tics across “Monsters vs. Aliens” with joyful results. Other supporting figures like Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland and Rainn Wilson also give appreciatively anarchic turns, rounding out a successful assortment of casting choices. Stephen Colbert is noxiously unfunny as the President of the United States, but his part is small and works as only a minor detractor against the movie. “Monsters vs. Aliens” is also rather short, breezy seems an appropriate adjective with which to describe the pacing on show here. Directorial duo Conrad Vernon (2005’s “Madagascar”) and Rob Letterman (2010’s Gulliver’s Travels”) adopt a tone of unrestrained lunacy throughout, simply intent on jumping from one wacky set-piece to another. The crazed approach both grants “”Monsters vs. Aliens” a lightness of touch and a robust foot up in the comedy department, the singular area in which this project unquestionably succeeds. The send-ups of stereotypes from genre movies of the past are clever, and it’s very obvious this isn’t a screenplay the directors were ever intent on taking too seriously. Certainly as popcorn entertainment “Monsters vs. Aliens” is sporadically efficient.

One of the film’s largest faults is the undistinguishable moral it permeates at the end, the classic “be yourself, and stay true to what you believe in” line we’ve seen a thousand times before. I’m actually pretty surprised DreamWorks’s hasn’t patented the damn idea at this point. Similarly the central plot machinations are spectacularly stale, the writers happy to churn out a script filled to the brim with formula. There’s nothing really unique about the endeavour, and the devotion to regurgitated ideas only does this delightful conceit a disservice. I guess imitation is sort of the point (it’s a love letter to cinema after all), but sadly that doesn’t make the onscreen adventuring anymore flavoursome or engaging. Troubling the production (and my patience) further is the badly sketched and wearisome leading figure of Ginormica, a character with too little invention or depth behind her to strike an effective connection with the audience. Finally the animation is average at best, some of the monster designs are neat, but “Monsters vs. Aliens” aesthetically lacks the texture and fine detail which can be found in the best of its kind. The visuals are sub-Pixar for sure. The movie was also presented originally in 3D, a gimmicky addition that now frustrates a few years after the fact. On DVD this film actually appears to represent a solid black mark against 3D, what may have looked impressive in a cinema is just annoyingly goofy on a TV. It’s an interesting point of notice, and as good a place as any to halt my thoughts. I can’t say I was super enthused by “Monsters vs. Aliens”, and had I not picked up the disc so cheap (it’s widely available and very reasonably priced in most locations) I think I would have been moderately annoyed. It’s an okay slice of entertainment, but undeniably forgettable.

Is it worth catching up with? - Not really, it’s serviceable enough, but your cultural side won’t be enriched one iota by checking it out. (C+)

Daniel Kelly, 2011


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