2009 | Directors: Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman | Writers: A grab-bag of TV vets
Among the usual previews before my screening of Dreamworks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens” was one of the more idiotic film trailers I’ve ever seen: a Sony Pictures Animation film called, and I’m not kidding, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” about a poorly-rendered scientist who devises a way to turn rain into food.
I thought it was a joke. I jumped out of my seat and looked around excitedly to see if I was the surprise victim of an episode of “Howie Do It.” “Where’s Howie?” I shouted as I ran up and down the aisles, clapping my hands gleefully. I lifted children to look under chairs. I kicked over trash cans. After about fifteen minutes of doing that and finding no cameras, I realized it wasn’t a prank. I slouched back to my seat, stunned.
What does this have to do with “Monsters vs. Aliens,” you ask? To put it plainly, it reminded me that Dreamworks Animation, long ago considered an also-ran to the great and powerful Pixar/Disney, at least critically, is playing in the big leagues now. Sony, with its improbably-named films about stupid things, is the new red-headed step-child of the CGI movie world. To say the least, that “Cloudy” trailer was the perfect comparison-set-up for any film, but especially for a high-profile blockbuster by a proud giant of the animation industry like Dreamworks. How could I not like “Monsters?” Here’s how, as it turns out: a brainless plot, flat jokes, tired pop culture references, and the most generic voice acting this side of a Sony Pictures Animation movie. If anything, “Monsters” drops Dreamworks another hundred miles behind Pixar in the CGI arms race.
“Monsters” follows Susan (Reese Witherspoon), who is hit by a meteor on her wedding day, as she transforms into a white-haired giantess, is captured by a blustery general (Kiefer Sutherland) and added to a stable of bland monsters (voiced by Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, and Seth Rogen), and is forced to fight off an invasion of alien robots headed by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). Along for the ride are a bunch of useless characters whose embarrassing presence made my skin crawl, voiced by Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd, Renee Zellwegger, Jeffrey Tambor, John Krasinski, Amy Poehler, Ed Helms, and every other actor alive.
It’s nearly impossible to watch “Monsters” and refrain from thinking that any sole auteur at Pixar would have made an infinitely better film, one with tension and pathos and genuine humor. But Pixar aside, “Monsters” is still an achingly bad kids’ movie, packing dirt-level respect for the audience’s intelligence into a cut-rate package of bright colors and “look who we got!” voice talent. There’s no character development, nothing substantial to laugh at, and, troublingly, no reason to care if Gallaxhar destroys humankind or not. It’s another testament to the idea that you can’t hire half a dozen joke-writers and make a good family film.
I liked “Over the Hedge.” I enjoyed “Kung Fu Panda.” I even thought parts of the first “Shrek” movie were clever. But now you’ve lost me, Dreamworks. At this point I’m willing to give a lesser animation studio the chance to win second place in my CGI-loving heart. Bring on the terribly-named movies about inventors who find ways to turn water into hamburgers, or whatever. They can’t be as insulting as “Monsters vs. Aliens.”
Rating: One and a half of five stars