Saturday, March 21, 2009

Monsters Aren't So Bad

Monsters vs. Aliens has been digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience® with IMAX DMR® technology for a truly immersive 3D experience. When California girl Susan Murphy is unexpectedly clobbered by a meteor full of outer space gunk, she mysteriously grows to 49-feet-11-inches tall and is instantly labeled as a “monster” named Ginormica. The military jumps into action, and she is captured and held in a secret government compound. The world learns that the military has been quietly rounding up other monsters over the years. Their confinement time is cut short, however, when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins storming the country. As a last resort, under the guidance of General W.R. Monger (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) the motley crew of monsters is called into action to combat the aliens and save the world from imminent destruction.

The cute ad campaign for Monsters vs. Aliens does a grave service to the gleeful little movie behind it. It quickly moves beyond smart aleck-y quips and crude fart jokes into the sort of iconoclasm which characterized the Shrek films at their best--aided by a deep and abiding affection for classic 50s sci-fi that reverberates from every frame. It also contains a (very big) surprise: a female hero, the sort which hardly ever appears in movies like this. The filmmakers do her further justice by removing much of the tiresome "get a boyfriend to be happy" baggage typically carried by figures now seen in this day and age. Not that she'd have any trouble carrying it. She's 50 feet tall after all (and you REALLY gaet that feeling on the IMAX screen). There was this problem with a radioactive meteor, you see: it slammed into her on her wedding day and her groom-to-be kind of freaked out when she grew big enough to slam through the roof of the church. The government abducted her quickly thereafter, transporting her to a super-secret facility where they keep all of the Horrible Things That Should Not Be. The former Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is redubbed Ginormica--the name "people scream when they see you coming"--and introduced to a passel of colleagues: dessert topping run amok B.O.B. (voiced by Seth Rogen), the politely crazed Dr. Cockroach (voiced by Hugh Laurie), reptilian chick magnet Missing Link (voiced by Will Arnett) and the hideous but strangely cuddly Insectosaurus (voiced by Insectosaurus).  Ginormica adores her new buddies, but she'd much rather be "normal" and married to that sweet weatherman from Modesto like she planned. Of course, that's before the evil Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his army of Clones From Beyond The Stars touch down to wreak havoc, and the government springs its former monster charges in an effort to save the world. In the midst of it all, she learns that it's actually kind of cool to be 50 feet tall… much cooler than the Fresno anchorman gig her ex is coveting. Directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon spruce up their hero's journey with a lot of truly inspired humor. It helps audience members to be familiar with the monster movies it emulates, though not required; the nostalgia for such films comes across whether you've actually seen them or not. Monster vs. Aliens walks the fine line between adult sophistication and children's simplicity extremely well, aided by a boundless enthusiasm for its subject matter and unburdened by the fact that it apparently took a small army to write the damn thing. Indeed, for a screenwriting-by-committee project, it's surprisingly light on its feet, and while a certain smugness creeps into the corners from time to time, the very funny vocal cast staves that off admirably. Beyond the jokes themselves, Letterman and Conrad possess a singular asset that really helps Monsters vs. Aliens take off. Like Shrek, it understands what it is to be an outsider, delivered less in maudlin tones of woe but rather as a celebration of freaky individuality. Its heroes aren't just punchlines and funny visuals: we connect with them all, especially Susan who makes a winning and sympathetic protagonist. The film treats her no differently than it would a male protagonist in similar circumstances--quietly stressing how rare that assumption still is, which helps further remove it from business-as-usual family entertainment. To be sure, it remains family entertainment nonetheless, emphasizing a good time above all else and perfectly happy to provide ninety minutes' worth of pleasant distraction. Yet it does so with such a twinkle in its eye--such obvious relish at coloring outside the lines, if only just---that it endears itself to us far more readily than many of its peers. The fun is infectious and has a sense of the genuine to back it up: the feeling that its creators aren't just aping what they think the public wants. If they believe, then we believe, a fact which Monsters vs. Aliens rides quite handily across the finish line. Most adults assume that animated films are strictly for kids. But they’re only half-right. The best animated movies these days – as is true, really, of the best animation since the beginning of the form – is pitched as much at adults as it is at kids. Perhaps it’s that animators recognize that adults will be sitting through these films with their kids, so they want to make the experience less painful. Or maybe it’s just that, given how long it takes to craft an animated feature, the animators need to keep themselves amused while they’re working. Whatever. The point is you don’t need a child as an excuse to take yourself to see Monsters vs. Aliens, a delightfully goofy sci-fi spoof with a strong voice cast and a consistently witty script. On the other hand, the increasingly popular notion that 3D is the wave of the future baffles me. Here’s why: the glasses. Anytime you need special equipment to watch a movie, it becomes a gimmick. And gimmicks are inherently transient, impermanent. Until they can figure out a way to do 3D without forcing the audience to don eyewear, it will always just be an option – not a requirement. The best movies pull you so far into them that they might as well be in 3D, anyway. Which is another way of saying that you don’t need to see Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D to enjoy it. Take the kids – and stick around yourself. A joyous 4 on my "Go See" scale. 

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