April 2, 2009

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Monsters vs. Aliens (PG)
Government-controlled monsters fight a megalomaniacal alien in the relentlessly jokey Monsters vs. Aliens, a DreamWorks cartoon (shown in several places in 3-D) that suffers from DreamWorks Animation Snark Syndrome.

The Shrek sequels, Shark Tale, Bee Movie — these are all DreamWorks Animation movies and I would argue that these movies, generally speaking, had more funny, zany, goofy and silly, not to mention emotionally satisfying, moments to offer to me than to most kids. More of the jokes are aimed at my adult knowledge of pop culture than at a kid’s idea of what is funny (poop, falling down, monkeys — all comedy gold to the elementary-schoolers of the world). More of the pathos in these movies (the central character learning to assert himself or finding his place in the world or finding true love) was directed at my adult understanding of how plot devices work than at a kid’s need to have constant action or stunning visuals or a comprehendible story. I’m not saying DreamWorks never succeeds (last year’s Kung Fu Panda was delightful for me, for my then eight-year-old stepson and for the other kids and parents in the audience) but there is a tendency to cram in too much grown-up stuff at the expense of stuff that would be universal (see as an example of how it’s done right WALL-E or, heck, most Pixar movies). When two characters in this movie break up — during a rather harsh scene in which one character states directly that it’s because the relationship will no longer revolve selfishly around him — I heard moms gasp but kids make the whine that means “I’m bored.”

The movie first gets going with scenes of Susan (Reese Witherspoon) getting ready for her wedding to weatherman Derek Dietel (Paul Rudd). (Because there’s nothing that delights a six-year-old like spa humor!) In the moments before her wedding when Susan is contemplating what a jerk she’s marrying, she’s hit by a meteorite and when she gets to the altar and lifts her veil, she reveals that she’s glowing — not in the usual bridely way but with a blue radioactive-type glow and soon she’s not just glowing but growing. To terrified shouts of “here comes the bride!” she busts out of the top of the church but is quickly pinned down by government agents, who tie her up Gulliver-style and whisk her to a secret facility.

There, she learns that because of her nearly 50-foot size she is now classified as a monster and is fated to spend her life in a holding facility with other monsters: the brainless but endearing blob B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), the reptilian body-builder Missing Link (Will Arnett), the giant non-verbal bug Insectosaurus and the uber-genius Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, using his real accent and may I say, meee-ow; forget the cartoon and the kids nonsense, make a movie where Laurie just talks for 90 minutes and I promise to see it over and over and over…). Their warden is General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) and the pompous moronic president he informs about the existence of monsters after the aliens show up is voiced by Stephen Colbert. (I’m sure I was supposed to laugh knowingly but “oh, really, must we?” was my reaction to the name of the general — all this poking fun at Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld is so painfully 2006 that it starts to be as off-putting for me as their talk-heavy scenes seemed to be for the younger audience members.)

The appearance of the alien in question — Gallaxhar, voiced by Rainn Wilson — helps move the story along and cut down on some of the talking, but for a movie that needs to keep younger kids entertained for a full 90-plus minutes, there is still a lot of conversation (on the screen and in the audience — some of that conversation was of the “Mommy, I’m scared” variety during a few of the action scenes).

I brought my now-nine-year-old stepson to this movie and tried to keep an eye on how often he laughed or otherwise seemed engaged by the movie. Not much, from what I could tell. Afterward, he said he liked the movie but then talked about characters he had already gotten to know from the trailers. And his reaction to the much ballyhooed 3-D? “There wasn’t very much 3-D,” he said about the effects that can raise the ticket price about $4. (And I agree — after a few gimmicky “right AT you” moments in the beginning, the 3D isn’t a big part of the movie.)

Monsters vs. Aliens is, for the most part, a movie that family members can watch together. But it is not, in the best sense of the word, truly a family movie. It doesn’t delight everyone, doesn’t offer anybody of any age anything new to wonder over or giggle about. It’s OK but I don’t know that it’s worth a trip to the movie theater when plenty of DVDs will entertain the whole crowd (not just the adults and occasionally the kids) just as well for cheaper. C+

Rated PG for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language. Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and written by Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Letterman and Vernon, Monsters vs. Aliens is an hour and 34 minutes long and distributed in wide release by DreamWorks Animation.