Editor’s Note: In this column animation critic Joe Strike gives us our first review of Monsters vs. Aliens.
A few weeks back Jeffrey K came to town to hype his latest, first-in-3D animated feature Monsters vs. Aliens. Did you know (Jeffrey does) 3D is the third revolution in motion pictures, right after the introduction of sound, then color? Neither did I; in fact the film seemed more like the old paddleball in your face routine – which is literally how it begins. OK, I enjoy a meta-gag as much as the next guy, but after JK talked up what they were gonna do with the technology, I expected more than visual quotes. (And yes, the 3D was very cool-looking all the way through.)
Speaking of which, MvA is a return to DreamWorks’ ‘look how many pop-culture gags we can stuff into this thing’ philosophy. (And after the emotionally honest storytelling of Kung-Fu Panda, I was so disappointed.) Thus a top-secret UFO sighting is referred to as a “Code Nimoy,” and later on the order is given to “destroy all monsters” (the tile of one of those old Japanese monster-fests). When President Stephen Colbert (who’s much funnier on his own show) greets the aliens via a 5-note keyboard riff – it’s (ha ha ha, yawwn) the Close Encounters motif – but the ensuing hilarity is even more hilarityous when he switches into a rockin’ rendition of Beverly Hills Cop‘s Axel F theme. (And they even managed to squeeze in John Williams’ E.T. along the way.)
Come to think of it, it felt like those visual quotes far outnumbered the pop-cult references: Reese Witherspoon’s meteor-induced growth into ‘Ginormica’ put a reverse spin on The Incredible Shrinking Man while simultaneously referencing Attack of the 50-Foot Woman; her expansion within the confines of a church = Wonderland’s Alice undergoing the same experience inside the White Rabbit’s house; her hand reaching, upside-down, directly into the audience, a lift from Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M for Murder; Reese’s desperate hanging onto the edge of a San Francisco building: Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo; an attack on (the film’s strangely redesigned version of) the Golden Gate Bridge: Harryhausen’s It Came From Beneath the Sea; blob monster B.O.B. oozing out of a doorway, just like the star of the 1950’s sci-fier The Blob…
I guess I can’t blame the filmmakers if they’re as big a bunch of fanboys as I am, but the poke-in-the-ribs, ‘you know what we’re quoting’ routine gets tiresome after a while. Even so, there were plenty of laugh lines in the film that the audience enjoyed; the TV news film critic sitting next to me guffawed at Reese’s sleazy TV anchor-boyfriend’s remark that his audience expects “news, sports, weather and heartwarming fluff pieces.”
Okay, not every DreamWorks movie can be a Panda or even a Shrek I (where the pop-culture gags were fresh) but to me it felt like they weren’t even trying. The ‘growth’ (there I go again!) of Reese and her fellow monsters into emotionally committed friends was strictly by the numbers. And when the military rewards her with a reunion with her family, why do her monster pals tag along, other than to stuff some ‘monsters freak out her family’ gags into the movie? Throwing something illogical into the script just to keep things moving – even in an anything-goes fantasy film – does a lot to unsuspend my suspension of disbelief.
Joe is an occasional animation scripter and freelance NYC writer covering animation and sci-fi/fantasy entertainment. His work has appeared in the NY Daily News, Newsday, the New York Press and, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle, ‘a host of others.’ He is a regular contributor to the animation industry website awn.com, but it’s much easier to visit joestrike.com to see what he’s been up to lately.