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MOVIE REVIEW

Monsters vs. Aliens

'Monsters' brawl: Creature feature face-off contrasts stunning 3-D visuals with flat script

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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If you have to see "Monsters vs. Aliens" - and if you're a parent, you will have to - make sure it's the 3-D version. The film's opening scenes deposit the audience somewhere in the middle of the rings of Saturn with a parsecs-wide vastness that is out of this world. Every kid in the screening I attended blurted out a stunned "Whoa," and so did most of the grown-ups: We were witnessing not just the beginning of a film but the start of the next phase of blockbuster-movie technology, like it or not.

The rest of "Monsters vs. Aliens," unfortunately, brings us slowly back to Earth. The latest computer-animated production from DreamWorks - home of "Shrek," "Madagascar," and "Kung Fu Panda" - is a perfectly acceptable family movie. The characters are cute even when they're ugly, and the script has the expected mixture of things going boom, gross-out slapstick for the kids, and arch pop-culture cross-referencing for Mom and Dad. My sixth-grade daughter and her little pal happily gave it a thumbs-up, and if that's all you need to know, go with God and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

If the movie's 3-D visuals are above-average, though, everything else just feels average, including the motley-crew story line that pits a heroine and her wacky friends against a silly villain. Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is a modest young woman in Modesto, Calif., who's about to be married to a vain twit of a TV weatherman (Paul Rudd). She's clocked by a falling meteorite outside the church and instantly transformed into a giantess, dubbed Ginormica by the US Army and spirited away to an underground facility somewhere in the desert. (Turn right at Area 51, I think.)

Her prison-mates represent a nifty cross section of 1950s movie monsters, names changed to protect the DreamWorks legal department. Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) is a lab-suited mad scientist with the head of a bug (i.e., The Fly); the Missing Link (Will Arnett) is an egotistical gill-man (The Creature From the Black Lagoon); Insectosaurus is a grub the size of the Chrysler building (Mothra crossed with Godzilla). Funniest of all - the best thing in the movie, really - is B.O.B., a cheerful protoplasmic Blob with a brain of Jell-O and the raspy slobbo voice of Seth Rogen.

Susan/Ginormica, of course, is the 50-Foot-Woman, not in attack-mode as in the 1958 movie but crippled by low self-esteem (since all modern family movies have to stop and smell the empowerment). She gets her groove back when a four-eyed alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) sends his giant robot to Earth to seek out the rare element contained in the meteorite, which is now in her. Mayhem and the spectacular demise of the Golden Gate Bridge ensue.

It's not worth kicking too hard against "Monsters vs. Aliens," since it does its job reasonably well and its use of 3-D is superb, from the in-your-face moments (there's a sly shout-out to the paddleball man in 1953's pioneering 3-D film "House of Wax") to the larger use of space and spaciousness. The visual architecture of this movie has been thoroughly and imaginatively thought out, which is more than I can say for the flat script written by co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon with four - count 'em, four - others.

The bright, enthusiastic performances from Rogen, Witherspoon, Laurie, et al., put "Monsters vs. Aliens" over, not the dialogue that trundles along a well-worn family movie rut. Rudd displays none of his sneaky charm as the fiance - turns out you need to see this actor to get the joke - and the same goes for Stephen Colbert as the US president, who's drawn much funnier than he sounds, like a Mort Drucker caricature in a vintage '60s Mad magazine. In general, though, the animation isn't terribly impressive if you take away the 3-D; the monsters are fetchingly bizarre, but all the women look like Bratz dolls.

The big finale, with our monster heroes battling an army of cloned Gallaxhars, feels like "The Incredibles" stirred into "WALL-E" with a little Leni Riefenstahl on the side; it's hectic, noisy, effective, familiar. I wanted more, personally, or perhaps something elegantly less. Maybe we've been spoiled by Pixar's patented outside-the-box approach to digital family entertainment.

Or maybe that title just sets the bar too high. If a movie's called "Monsters vs. Aliens," don't you want to see more than five monsters - one of them an attractive, if plus-size, woman - and a lot more than one measly alien? DreamWorks has dreamed up a beguiling three-dimensional world, but it hasn't yet figured out exactly who to put in it.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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Monster mash-up bracket

Monster mash-up

Call it the freak 16, or the fiendish final four — the new film "Monsters vs. Aliens" fuels our own bracket madness.

MONSTERS VS. ALIENS Directed by: Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon

Written by: Letterman, Vernon, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger

Starring: the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan's IMAX Natick, Reading

Running time: 94 minutes

Rated: PG (sci-fi action, crude humor, mild language)

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