Is it possible for John Lasseter to be made the head of Dreamworks Animation, too? The animated-film virtuoso is already the chief creative officer at both Disney Animation and Pixar, and judging from the quality of the two studios’ most recent releases (Bolt and Wall-E, respectively), he’s not stretched too thin yet. Why not give him Dreamworks, too, and complete the trifecta? Or perhaps President Obama can just appoint him Animation Czar?
I ask because while Dreamworks’s latest animated offering, Monsters vs. Aliens, is a clever, generally likable entertainment, it doesn’t ascend to the heights where Pixar resides and which Disney Animation is endeavoring to scale. (Though both studios are now owned by the Mouse, they retain separate facilities and staff.) A send-up of the atomic-panic films of the 1950s--in particular, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, The Fly, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Toho Company’s giant-monster oeuvre, and a variety of alien invasion flicks--Monsters vs. Aliens has the wit and effects of a top-flight animated film. But like most Dreamworks releases (with the notable exception of last year’s Kung Fu Panda), it lacks the nuance and depth.
The film begins with a wedding crasher that makes Vince Vaughn look well-mannered: a gigantic green meteorite that complicates the Modesto marriage of Susan (Reese Witherspoon) and Derek (Paul Rudd) by landing directly on top of the bride shortly before the ceremony begins. (“I think I just got hit by a meteorite,” a groggy Susan explains moments later, only to have Mom chide her: “Susan, every bride feels like that on her wedding day.”) At the altar, when Derek tells Susan she’s “glowing,” he does not mean it metaphorically. The glow fades--wouldn’t yours if hubby-to-be were staring at you like that?--but is quickly replaced by a still more awkward irregularity, as Susan sprouts to just under 50 feet tall, taking out the church roof and steeple in the process. Next time, raise higher the roof beam, carpenters.
Over the not-terribly-emphatic protests of her groom, the suddenly supersized Susan is picked up by the U.S. military and placed in a secret underground bunker populated by a variety of other drive-in denizens: the amphibious Missing Link (Will Arnett); the brilliant, bug-headed Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie); a goopy, indestructible mass of Bicarbonate Ostylezene Benzoate, or “Bob” (Seth Rogen); and a 350-foot tall, snot-blowing, pre-verbal grub called Insectosaurus. The monstrous quartet--now quintet, thanks to Susan, whom the government has presumptuously renamed “Ginormica”--spend their time moldering glumly in confinement, despite the upbeat advice of their warden, General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland): “Don’t think of this as a prison. Think of it as a hotel you never leave, because it’s locked from outside.”
That is, until a haughty alien overlord named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) arrives in our quadrant of the galaxy and sends down a towering robot probe to subjugate humanity and recover the radioactive “quantonium” of the meteor that chicken-littled Susan. Earth’s tough luck is the monsters’ good fortune: The gang is granted a furlough to rescue downtown San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from the giant automaton’s motorized depredations. The ensuing action sequences are first-rate, though I’m afraid I can’t comment on the relative awesomeness of the 3-D effects. (The screening I attended was in two boring old dimensions.) But in my recent experience, every six months or so a studio boasts of a stunning new technology that will revolutionize the format, and each time the results are more or less indistinguishable: same goofy glasses; same yo-yos or vomit or explosive debris hurled toward the back rows.
In typical Dreamworks fashion, the film is stuffed to bursting with pop-culture nods, including drive-bys of Leonard Nimoy, Close Encounters, Beverly Hills Cop, Journey (yes, the band), An Inconvenient Truth, Mothra, “Wooly Bully,” Gulliver’s Travel’s, and Destroy All Monsters. Susan shrinks and then grows again, the monsters are first shunned and then celebrated by suburban Modesto, and fickle fianc? Derek gets what’s coming to him. Oh, and (spoiler) the Earth is ultimately saved.
It’s all diverting enough, and directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon keep things bouncing along, but Monsters vs. Aliens can’t help but feel a little betwixt and between: crammed full of references not intended for kids--Stephen Colbert does the voice of the president, for instance, and while he’s perfectly adequate, the real joke is in the casting--yet lacking the narrative depth and moral texture that make Pixar offerings worthy adult fare. It’s another sign that, unlike Susan, Dreamworks Animation hasn’t quite grown up.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.