DreamWorks is an interesting studio that seems to often achieve commercial success, but only manages to inconsistently grasp at creative success with their animated films. Once a producer of both 2D and 3D features, they ditched 2D after 2003 – which is a shame as The Road To El Dorado was, as they say, the bees knees. Post Shrek 2 DreamWorks seems to be a studio more about turning celebrities into cartoon animals and making pop culture and real world references than they are about telling good stories with their animation. Only the term “facepalm” can describe my reaction to this scene in Shrek The Third – though I would advice not watching this film if you want to maintain respect for Led Zeppelin. Which is exactly why it was so good to see that DreamWorks’ latest animated feature, Monsters Versus Aliens, has a good story to tell.
The story is the tale of Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), an ordinary human, whose wedding day is ruined when a meteorite hits and gives her strange powers that cause her to grow to a gigantic size. Sedated and captured by the army, Susan becomes a prisoner in a government facility where her inmates are other monsters. But when an alien invasion threatens the country, these monsters are brought out to combat the threat – thus the title of the movie. While the film takes its lead from other films in the monster horror and alien invasion sub-genres, we’re primarily concerned with the story of Susan and her strange journey of self discovery. Spoiler – the message is: “be yourself.”
The film begins with Susan being proposed to by her news presenter boyfriend, Derk Dietl (voiced by Paul Rudd) and scoots along to their wedding day. Here things get really weird – and I’m not referring to Susan’s hundred-foot transformation. The big headed humans, saturated colours and restricted character rigs make the wedding scene look like it enacted using toy dolls. Meanwhile Susan’s fiancé Derek is portrayed without any subtlety as the archetype love interest who is obviously a jerk to the viewing audience straight away, yet it will take our heroine the duration of the film to realise this. (Actually, thinking about it – maybe this isn’t so far removed from reality after all…)
Anyhow, things get interesting once Susan starts growing to enormous size in the middle of her wedding. Guests flee in terror, her fiancés doesn’t know what to make of it all and the army rolls in to bring Susan down. It’s a great sequence that focuses on Susan’s distress as she cries out confused as she’s attacked, drugged, tied up and knocked out. It works because it plays on the usual giant monster scenario by asking us to sympathise with the monster. She’s not Godzilla – she’s just a scared, confused person. The pacing becomes real nice and slow as Susan wakes up in a government facility and is gradually introduced the idea of her enforced confinement. There’s some fabulous stuff where Susan is in this massive, sterile room with no obvious exit. Her movement is full of anxiety and the desolate soundscape is populated only by a quiet room tone, her footsteps and the sound of her voice. It’s very all very immersive.
Less impressive are her fellow monster companions. First there’s The Missing Link – a slimy man-fish creature who has absolutely zero impact on the film’s plot. The Missing Link’s job is just to put on a machismo front, get knocked out in the first fight and then get an ego boost toward the end of the film. It’s not so much of a character arc as a line graph. His design is completely unappealing as this strange lumpy shaped thing with tiny little legs and great big head. In movement The Missing Link just flops around awkwardly with no sense of timing and Will Artnett’s voice adds nothing to the character. Cutting this character would only have improved the film. Then there’s Dr. Cockroach, voiced by Hugh Laurie. After all, if a person plays a doctor on TV then they’re perfectly suited for playing another doctor character. Actually Laurie does a decent job – but Doctor Cockroach remains only marginally interesting. He’s a mad doctor who is a half-man/half-cockroach and there’s not much more to say than that. Oddly enough, it’s the monsters who have absolutely no character progression who are the most interesting. Insectosaurus is a monstrously huge furry insect creature of such as size that he dwarfs Susan. Despite his size, inability to speak or even communicate much through body language, his fuzzy body and big round eyes make for an instantly appealing character. Sadly, he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Then there is B.O.B; a blue, one eyed gelatinous monster with the ability to stretch, break apart, form an arm (or arms) at will and generally enjoy not having a skeletal system hampering his range of movement. B.O.B also doesn’t let his lack of a brain stop him from having fun either and so B.O.B is a fun, playful and innocent being who is just damn charming and entertaining. Appropriately cast to do his voice is Seth Rogen. B.O.B is a just a joy and my hat goes off to the animator responsible for bringing his last sight gag to life at the end of the picture. It’s just gold. (You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.) On that note, as far as I’m aware Dreamworks haven’t had supervising animators assigned to specific characters since their days of producing 2D animated features. I may be wrong though – in which case I apologise if I should also be crediting specific animators assigned to characters.
Overall the animation succeeds in bringing these characters to life and there’s some genuine sympathy evoked in Susan’s performance, but I do feel there was plenty of room to make the movement much more broad – though that fault may be more due to the restricted character rigs than the animator’s ability. Just to quickly explain: 3D character models require a system of bones and muscles before they can move. This process, called rigging, solves the practical problems of ensuring that the eyelids don’t go slipping off the eyes and make sure that leg bone connects to the hip bone. It’s also the responsibility of riggers to define the degree of movement of characters and how extreme they can be manipulated. While riggers Ron Griswold and Pia Miniati did fantastic work on the gelatinous and morphing B.O.B, a lot of the performances feel restrained either by their rig or unadventurous animators. But not always – American President Hathaway is a particularly successful character. While many humans are strangely caricatured, President Hathaway is just right in his appearance and his performance is both comedically broad and nicely nuanced. His rig is also fleshy, stretchy and believable and Stephen Colbert seems to be channelling Peter Seller’s President Muffley from Doctor Strangelove. There’s actually some great overall feeling of Doctor Strangelove in a lot of the war room scene as the President and General Monger (yet another successful and memorable character; voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) struggle to deal with an impossible situation with a seemingly invincible alien enemy.
A big strength of the narrative is that the aliens – or rather the giant killer robot sent by the aliens – is genuinely formidable, which leads to very real concern when Susan and her newfound monster friends are doing battle. This part of the film is just plain visually spectacular. The sight of masses of infantry, tanks and jets launching a full scale assault on a single robot behemoth can only be described as awesome. Its large scale moments like these that really play to the strength of 3D animation as a medium. On top of this there’s a brilliantly staged showdown on the Golden Gate bridge and another great scene of Susan running across city roof tops doing free running in giant proportions. It’s all wickedly entertaining. But while the alien attack is exciting and well executed, the lead villain of the film, Gallaxhar, is a wasted opportunity. Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson) is the evil alien commanding the robot attacking Earth, but the problem is Gallaxhar never becomes more than a standard I’m-evil-because-I’m-evil villain. There are so many opportunities here for pathos or malice or genuine evil – but Gallaxhar is just a fairly inoffensive and unthreatening personality. As a four-eyed, squid bodied being, there is some neat stuff where his eyes central eyes are focused while his outer eyes convey what he’s feeling – but aside from that Gallaxhar is seriously underdeveloped.
Back on the films successes, Monsters Versus Aliens is screening in 3D in selected cinema sessions and the use of 3D is nicely understated and works surprisingly well. There isn’t a single shot in which something leaps into the foreground and screams: “hey, you’re watching a 3D movie!” While the picture is a little fuzzy and there’s low contrast in the blacks, it does give a nice depth to the picture and the lighting appears gorgeously voluminous. Plus any kind of explosion or hit is enhanced by the way debris will fall into the foreground. It all works well because what Dreamworks did was focus on good staging and good cinematography – and because of this approach it ends up looking double-plus good and immersive in 3D. Also most cinemas are alternating between 3D and non-3D sessions, so you’re not forced to watch the film in 3D if you don’t want to.
Either way the film looks pleasing thanks to it taking some inspiration from the art direction of The Incredibles; mostly in the human character designs being caricatured people with slightly oversized heads and the similarity in designs of each respective films giant, seemingly invincible robot. It’s when the film isn’t taking its lead from The Incredibles that things get a bit shoddy – particularly with the design of the non-human characters. The main problem is that there is no strength or purpose in the basic shapes which make up the characters. For example Doctor Cockroach has these huge eyes which dominate his frame – yet his acting is mostly in the gestures of his tiny little arms. There’s some wonderful stuff in the sequence where the giant robot awakens on Earth where the staging and lighting and everything is all magnificent – but most of the time it looks fairly ordinary with these awkwardly designed and overly detailed characters in bland, natural lighting. Meanwhile the sound design (Erik Aadahl) is consistently fantastic throughout with rich soundscapes and small details that make all the difference. Except the sound of the alien army marching – which is based around the sound of blowing bubbles through a straw. That just sounds awful.
But despite some redundant characters and poor creative choices, Monsters Versus Aliens does provide a good adventure story. There are some very moody scenes, some big wow moments and a number of good laughs. Not to mention that there are only two pop culture references – both of which are actually entertaining for coming out of left of field and being absurdly silly. And yet, despite its entertainment value, Monsters Versus Aliens is also the victim of its own monster/alien invasion genre. Like Mars Attacks it’s a fun watch – but nothing more than what it is. It is promising to see Dreamworks focus on storytelling and I do hope they continue along this path and continue to sharpen their character development and animation range. I doubt they’ll ever use animation to create a tale of cults and murders amongst cats that parallels the Nazi regime – but Monsters Versus Aliens is definitely a step in a better direction.