DreamWorks Animation's 3-D feature Monsters vs. Aliens is structured around a clever enough conceit: Creature-feature icons of the '50s and '60s are re-envisioned as misunderstood outcasts. Struck by a meteor on her wedding day, Modesto, Calif., local Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) grows to great heights, an inch shy of her Attack of the 50-Foot Woman precursor. She meets Missing Link (Will Arnett); B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, for once perfectly cast); Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie); and Insectosaurus—fellow anomalies recalling, respectively, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Fly, and Japanese giant monster flicks. Shortly thereafter, the troupe is unleashed from a government facility in order to thwart an alien invasion helmed by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson).
But despite its imaginative setup, as directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon the movie remains curiously staid. Released on the heels of Coraline, it suffers the more by comparison; everything enchanting, atmospheric and unusual about the former shows up the latter's by-the-numbers approach. Sure, a facile level of adult engagement is won when the ineffectual president (Stephen Colbert) greets the alien's robot probe by keyboarding Close Encounters of the Third Kind's five-note motif before segueing into "Axel F" and unleashing a missile labeled "E.T. Go Home," but such dimensionless inclusions ultimately grow wearying. At least the gimmicky 3-D tricks meant to garner giggly gasps early on—including a paddleball sequence—later give way to more sophisticated spatial conceptions.
Its girl-power trajectory does render Monsters vs. Aliens marginally interesting, given that animated American movies rarely feature female-led narratives. Susan, dubbed Ginormica, realizes over the course of the film that she enjoys the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing rather than sitting on the sidelines in support of her fiancé's career; her mutation, initially lamented, is soon celebrated as a source of strength. But even this narrative theme (embrace perceived differences) has already been mined in numerous forerunners, from Shrek to The Incredibles. Hewing closely to generic conventions rather than demonstrating real innovation, Monsters vs. Aliens—as in the case of so many big-budget, high-concept projects—remains content to simply go where numerous others have gone before. PG.
Opens Friday at Bridgeport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Evergreen, Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cinema 99, City Center, Lloyd Mall, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Roseway, Sandy, Sherwood, St. Johns Twin Cinema-Pub and Wilsonville.