Forget monsters or aliens; co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon lay claim to the strongest claws in the galaxy. How else to explain the magnificent and downright ballsy manner with which these animation veterans cling tightly to the small thread of a plot in Monsters vs. Aliens and ride it, grinning the whole way, for a solid hour and a half without ever losing their grip on the funny?
It’s tough to get away with such a facile plot in this time of high-minded Pixar fare. The script, by Letterman and (as per Dreamworks’ infuriatingly stupid norm) five other credited scribes, posits that certain kinds of “monsters” are very real and have been imprisoned by the federal government for at least the last 50 years. In an inspired turn, these monsters are all the result of accidents we’ve seen in creature flicks before – Creature From the Black Lagoon, Mosura, The Blob, and The Fly, to name a few. We come in on a new creation ripped from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman: Susan Murphy (voiced excellently by Reese Witherspoon) is marrying a tool of a local TV anchor (Paul Rudd). On her wedding day, she’s hit by a glowing meteor and grows to “49 feet, 11 inches,” and sends the wedding party running for their lives. (“Here comes the bride!” shouts one attendee.) Susan is quickly detained and sent away, where she meets other monster prisoners: blobby B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), mad scientist Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), and the Missing Link (Will Arnett).
Suddenly, a Napoleonic alien bug, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), chooses this as the time to invade Earth, utilizing a clone army, and the only forces that can stop him are the monsters.
For the first half of the film, the winking laughs take on the manic order of Terry Gilliam — dizzying, rapid-fire cinematic references piled on top of the subtle, realist humor from the deep voice-actor bench. Rudd’s work as Derek Dietl doesn’t feel like an animated version of his average-bro humor; Dietle is Rudd. Same goes for Kiefer Sutherland’s priceless turn as the Strangelovian General W.R. Monger and Rogen’s slacker B.O.B.
Stealing the show, however, is Stephen Colbert’s perfect tone as the President of the United States. Combining George W. Bush’s brash swagger with some of Obama’s rock-star appeal (though he surely recorded his part well before Obama swore in), his President Hathaway is a baffling piece of work. Confronted with an intimidating spacecraft, he rocks the keyboard and tries the Close Encounters sequence, which makes sense. When that doesn’t work, he bangs out the Beverly Hills Cop theme song, which doesn’t make sense. When the ship attacks, he jumps into the arms of his military brass and screams “Do something violent!” Now that’s our Bush.
The second half can’t keep pace with the first, and that’s a problem considering the film’s extremely loose plot, but it recovers well and finishes with a bang. As with Coraline, the RealD stereoscopic animation is superb, and the filmmakers employ it to their great advantage. On a side note, the original Toy Story will be re-released in this 3-D format in October, and from what I’ve seen of the technology so far, it should prove a transformative experience. •