With Monsters vs. Aliens, DreamWorks Animation executed a solid, if sometimes outright silly, premise with interesting characters and nostalgic nods in place of tired pop culture references. It was the first DreamWorks animated film to be made in stereoscopic 3D and the larger-than-life narrative suits the new format perfectly. It’s also the first DreamWorks Animation film to feature a main female protagonist since Chicken Run, and it does so in a surprisingly refreshing and empowering way.
At its core, Monsters vs. Aliens is a homage to the monster-filled B movies of the 1950s era. Some of its main characters are obviously inspired by flicks such as The Fly, The Blob, and Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, and there are other little nods throughout. Sure, a lot of it may seem corny, and it is, but the movie takes its corniness and runs with it, plays it up, and makes it enjoyable.
Take our opening scene for instance: our human heroine Susan (Reese Witherspoon) is poised to marry the love of her life, Derek (Paul Rudd), but instead gets hit by a radioactive meteorite right before it’s time for her to walk up the aisle. She’s inexplicably uninjured and still proceeds with the ceremony, but just as she reaches the altar, Susan sprouts into a 49-foot, 11-½ inch giant, ripping through the roof of the church and inadvertently causing chaos until the government intervenes.
With her new ‘monster’ status and name Ginormica, Susan finds herself confined in Area 52 along with several other monster/experiments the government has captured and quarantined: Dr. ****roach Ph. D. (Hugh Laurie), a man-turned-insect; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a prehistoric sea-ape creature thawed from ice; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a gelatinous blob created from a tomato and ranch dressing mutation; and Insectosaurus, the mute 350-foot bug. The monsters are kept locked away by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), but are quickly called out of their imprisonment by the President (Stephen Colbert, perfectly caricatured) to fight an alien invasion led by the evil Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), who intends to harvest the quantonium that Susan absorbed from the meteorite in order to create an army of alien clones to invade Earth.
If that all seems over-the-top, that’s because it is, and maybe it wouldn’t work as well if the movie wasn’t also full of heart, but Monsters vs. Aliens delivers that too. Because beyond the crazy alien and dysfunctional monsters, the very human Susan is the heart of our story. Here we have a character who, at the film’s opening, has built up her entire world around an egotistic man that she believes to be in love with her. She’s willing to let her fiancé’s career dictate the entire rest of her life, from where she lives to what she does – not exactly a role model to encourage young girls to follow. Throughout the course of the story, Susan discovers her self-worth, and comes to the realization that Derek doesn’t really value her, and she doesn’t need a man to make her happy.
At one point near the film’s climax, Susan shrinks down to her regular size after Gallaxhar removes the quantonium from her body, and it seems like she has another chance at a normal life. But her new monster friends are in mortal danger, and the only way to save them is by becoming Ginormica again – even if it means giving up the life she had always envisioned for herself. In that moment, we see a character fully transformed from a codependent, doting housewife figure into a self-realized, empowered heroine. Sure, the literal transformation from a standard-sized human into a nearly 50-foot giant may seem excessive, but the message is important, and still not shared enough in today’s media. Susan has a refreshingly full character arc, and while it’s not exactly unpredictable, it’s still a pleasure to watch; you go from cringing at her unjustified adoration of her fiancé at the movie’s opening to applauding her 360 degree turn by the movie’s end.
Monster vs. Aliens is also very visually pleasing, with outrageous character designs that mostly work, and epically-staged scenes like the monsters’ battle against Gallaxhar’s giant robot on The Golden Gate Bridge, or Susan’s race through San Francisco using cars as skates. Henry Jackman’s musical score is complementary without being distracting, with standout tracks like “The Ginormica Suite” and the end credit’s “Monster Mojo.”
Monsters vs. Aliens performed well at the box office, becoming the third highest grossing animated film of 2009 (behind Pixar’s Up and Blue Sky’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs); however, it didn’t earn enough to warrant a sequel. It’s not a perfect movie; a lot of the plot is predictable, even well designed characters grow irritating (looking at you, B.O.B.), and the whole premise might be too ridiculous for some filmgoers’ tastes.
But the tongue-and-cheek references to the aforementioned horror classics help the film’s longevity, supplementing some of the standard potty humor and pop culture parodies that became standard DreamWorks fare after Shrek. It was nice to see DreamWorks explore sci-fi territory after a number of subsequent animated animal movies and fantasy settings. And there’s something to be said for a movie that opens in song, encouraging Susan to profess her lifelong devotion to her narcissist fiancé, and ends with the same character literally flicking the previous object of her affections into the air and into a blob of blue goop.