Monsters vs. Aliens proves recycling is the name of the game when it comes to producing a would-be blockbuster. It's rendered a benign if entertaining parasite by the animation team, who build a solid case for 3-D's mainstream viability.
Before the movie has even started, a spaceship beams up the moon-perched boy seen fishing in the DreamWorks logo. That's a sure sign the filmmakers are going to ransack the history of cinema, including their own bodies of work, and shamelessly poach from pop culture. These are the folks behind the Shrek franchise, so they know a thing or two about creative cannibalism. They're also pretty good at it.
The allusions naturally cluster around sci-fi icons such as E.T. and Star Trek. But there are references, explicit and implied, to The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Strangelove, and the spoof Spaceballs. The effort is saved from seeming too second-hand or snarky by the computer artisans and voice actors -- most notably, Seth Rogen, Rainn Wilson, and Hugh Laurie -- who are able to breathe sufficient life into the concept.
At a listening post in Antarctica (Ice Station Zebra), two trekkie techies declare a "code Nimoy" after their equipment detects a UFO headed toward Modesto, California. The chunk of space matter flattens a woman (Reese Witherspoon) who's about to marry a weatherman from a local TV station. Just as they're going to exchange vows, the glowing green bride morphs into a platinum-haired Amazonian. So much for honeymooning in Paris.
Government forces swoop down and capture the colossal gal, soon to be dubbed Ginormica, in a sequence echoing Gulliver's Travels. She's incarcerated in a facility overseen by gung-ho General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), who describes his top-secret project as "an X-file wrapped in a cover up, deep fried in a conspiracy." Ginormica's four fellow inmates have also undergone freakish mishaps. On the assumption that we can't handle the truth -- and while simultaneously exploiting and underestimating the success of movies such as Monsters, Inc. -- their existence is kept from the public.
You've got brainy Dr. Cockroach (Laurie in Bertie Wooster mode), a dim blue blob known as B.O.B. (the omnipresent Rogen), a blowhard cousin of the Geico gecko called The Missing Link (Will Arnett), and a gargantuan insect. After the audience is made familiar with their back-stories and special powers, the story proceeds with an interstellar visit to the lair of the hilariously malevolent Galaxhar (Wilson). Upset at having lost track of the material that turned Ginormica into a strapping chick, he sends an alien probe to retrieve it.
The responsibility for rescuing planet earth from this destructive robot falls on the bumbling President of the United States (Stephen Colbert) and his advisers. Uh-oh. The future looks dim until it dawns on General Monger to deploy his quintet of monsters against the invader. Thus commences more action reminiscent of War of the Worlds, Godzilla, and King Kong, alongside humor broad enough to allow for a jab at Al Gore's Oscar-winning global warming movie An Inconvenient Truth and a poopy-pants joke (courtesy of the frightened Commander-in-Chief).
In the girl-power spirit of the recent Shrek installments, Ginormica avails herself of makeshift roller blades and becomes an able heroine. Naturally, the idea that monsters are people too, just like ogres, also gets driven home. The vocal talents elevate the bland but effective humor in Monsters vs. Aliens, while the visuals suggest 3-D doesn't have to be gimmicky to add to the theatrical experience. The destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge is most exciting sequence. Like every other aspect of the film, it doesn't raise the ante necessarily, but it proves satisfying in the short term.
To create fulsomely escapist entertainment, the kind you remember and that becomes fodder for subsequent movies, the filmmakers would have had to start with truly novel material.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated "PG" for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language.)