Since the competition began some ten years ago between Dreamworks and Pixar for supremacy in the field of computer animation there's always been a clear victor. Dreamworks has had to settle for second-best. They're the Rolling Stones to Pixar's Beatles. They're the Guy Ritchie to Pixar's Quentin Tarantino. They're the Hillary Clinton to Pixar's Barack Obama.
And with the studio's newest offering, "Monsters Vs. Aliens," it's not too difficult to see why.
Susan (Reese Witherspoon) thinks she knows what life has in store for her. It's her wedding day and she's eager to marry Derek (Paul Rudd,) an ambitious local weatherman, and head off for their honeymoon in Paris. Fate has other plans for her, though. A radioactive meteor crashes to earth and hits her, causing her to grow to 50 feet in height. Immediately she's subdued by a top secret government organization and whisked away to a technologically-advanced containment facility we assume is Area 51.
Once there she meets a host of vaguely familiar characters, each a parody of a classic monster movie. Referencing "The Fly" is Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie,) a mad scientist who's half-cockroach. Will Arnett voices The Missing Link, a half fish/half ape creature who's supposed to stand in for "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." The film gets its Godzilla/Mothra jokes in with Insectosaurus, who makes even the 50-foot Susan look tiny. Perhaps most amusing of the lot is B.O.B. (Seth Rogen,) a somewhat dim but fun-loving blue gelatin-like creature. He's the film's "The Blob" parody.
This motley crew is overseen, first as warden then as team leader, by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland,) himself a parody of the extreme military figures in classic monster movies with bits of "Dr. Strangelove" and "Full Metal Jacket" thrown in.
When a malevolent alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) begins an invasion of earth Monger convinces President Hathaway (none other than Stephen Colbert) to take advantage of his group of monsters to defend the planet. An epic series of battles begins and gradually Susan comes to accept and cherish her new identity as Ginormica.
The film isn't bad by any means, it's just entirely disposable. See it once, preferably in 3-D, and that's all one could ever really need.
The film is so firmly in the tradition of Dreamworks animation it's almost absurd. Going back to 1998's "Antz," Dreamworks' first computer animated film, the studio has had a formula that they've hammered hard: celebrity voices, characters principally inspired by the actors voicing them, some entertaining visuals, and as many pop culture references as possible. In "Antz" we had Woody Allen as a neurotic, individualist ant. In "A Shark Tale" we had Robert De Niro as a tough gangster shark and Will Smith as a slick, ultra-cool fish. In "Bee Movie" we had Jerry Seinfeld as a bee with an observational sense of humor. "Kung Fu Panda" had Jack Black as a large, loud, over-enthusiastic panda. And now we have Reese Witherspoon as a generic, attractive, monster-sized woman and Seth Rogen as a goofy blob creature who'd probably be smoking a blunt if this wasn't a kids movie. (His character might as well be stoned.) In all of these movies the filmmakers aren't bothering to create. They're just picking a celebrity we all know and then having them do their persona. The result is that Dreamworks has failed to give us endearing, meaningful characters. The closest they've come is with Shrek, but even he's just Mike Myers as an ogre.
This stands in stark opposition to Pixar's approach. In the "Toy Story" films we have real characters. Buzz Lightyear and Woody are voiced by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks but they're actual characters we can appreciate instead of just shadows of celebrity personas. We get this again in "WALL-E" and "Ratatouille" where talented filmmakers create memorable characters in stories that resonated with meaningful themes of the human experience. They managed to rise to the level of art. Dreamworks doesn't seem to be interested in making a movie like "WALL-E" that can work as both a children's entertainment and an adult's serious film. They're more content to just goof off.
That criticism aside, one can only appreciate "Monsters Vs. Aliens" and the other Dreamworks products for what they are: moderately successful entertainments. The film at least manages to wow with its visuals and offer a few choice laughs with its pop culture gags. Colbert reprises his TV persona as a buffoonish president. There are references to everything from Dance Dance Revolution to "An Inconvenient Truth."
Dreamworks can keep making its fluff and Pixar can keep making its art. Lets just not tolerate any whining come Oscar season when Pixar continues to dominate.