With its star-studded voice cast, silly giant monsters, and awesome alien robots, Monsters vs. Aliens is a great scifi comedy. It also brings a welcome snark to the usual after-school-special message of acceptance. Spoilers ahead.
The premise is X-Files for kiddies: A secret underground facility houses all the monsters accidentally or not-so-accidentally created over the past 50 years in America. There they live in giant cages, completely bored, until one day a new "rare, female monster" named Susan is introduced. Voiced by Reese Witherspoon, Susan is a proto-housewife from farm town Modesto who is turned into a giant when she's hit with an asteroid on her wedding day.
When the sweet, reluctant monster Susan is introduced to the blobby Bob (Seth Rogen), mad cockroach scientist Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), and dorky fish-frog-man The Missing Link, all she wants is to return to her life as the wife of a self-absorbed, small-town news anchor. But slowly the monsters teach her monster pride, and she teaches them about friendship. Luckily, an evil alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) rescues the movie from becoming Snow White and the Three Dwarfy Monsters, in which Susan tames the (to her) tiny monsters and gives their sexless boy lives meaning with her sweetness.
Gallaxhar is in search of the rare mineral that turned Susan into Ginormica, and decides to drain her of its essence and then destroy Earth just for fun. But first, he sends his giant space robot, which tears up San Francisco in a brilliant series of utterly fun scenes. The 3D action is swooshy, colorful, and exciting. Susan and the monsters defeat the space robot, which not only brings Susan's self-esteem up a peg but allows us to check out Stephen Colbert's moves as the movie's version of the US president.
It's hard not to giggle, regardless of your age, when President Colbert tries to communicate with the giant space robot through music - specifically the funky Axel F. theme song from Beverly Hills Cop. This is just one of dozens of clever little references strewn throughout the movie that will tickle adults and fly straight over kids' heads without any harm done. There's a brief moment with a Journey song that will make you howl, and of course all the monsters have their parallels in the great monsters of filmland canon: Ginormica is the 50 Foot Woman, Bob is the Blob, Dr. Cockroach is The Fly, and The Missing Link is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. And their giant bug pet, Insectasaurus, is Mothra. (Yay Mothra!)
The central drama of the film, other than fighting Gallaxhar and his clone army, is Susan's struggle to accept her new role as supergiant monster. Like the main character in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, she discovers that her husband is a cad. He rejects her the instant that her defeat of the giant robot makes her more famous than he is - it turns out all his promises that they're "a team" only apply when he's the star and she's in his shadow. So she has to embrace her strong, monstery side and accept that she's awesome precisely because she's weird.
While the pro-monster message a good one for kids - who doesn't feel like a booger-faced superinsect when they're 8? - the message about Susan feels embarrassingly dated. Girls in America today aren't choosing between selfhood and marriage. That's the struggle of their grandmothers' generation. Susan's anguish seems weird and misplaced, especially in a pop culture universe where Power Puff Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have existed for over a decade.
Instead of feminism, or even just "girl power," Monsters vs. Aliens gives us a "rare female monster" whose power is used to shame the other monsters ("I can't believe you were beaten by a girl monster!" one of them says to The Missing Link). Still, it's nice to see Susan as the hero, leading the battle against Gallaxhar, even if everybody keeps reminding her that what makes her a monster is that she's a strong woman.
The true joy in this movie is the way it overturns conventions of kids' movies about being "different." There is no happy ending where the monsters are accepted by everybody, though Susans' family eventually does accept her new size. Mostly the monsters are hung out to dry by all the humans we meet, who are generally bozos who can't tell the difference between the red button to end the world and the red button to order a latte. There's a gleeful, mean apocalyptic streak in this flick, helped along by the great voice acting from the likes of Wilson, Laurie, and especially Rogen. At times, their antics capture the smart mania of the early Muppets.
If you're looking for goofy fun you can share with carbon lifeforms under the age of 10 this weekend, definitely shoot yourself over to a theater to check out Monsters vs. Aliens.