As often as family-friendly movies are released, they're almost always as excruciating for parents as they are exciting for kids. Thankfully, that's not the case with Monsters vs. Aliens, Dreamworks' latest animated adventure. An effort that ranks among the top tier of the studio's remarkably inconsistent output, this tale of a plus-plus-plus-sized lady taking on extraterrestrial enemies with the help of some equally oddball friends is an entertaining, funny and emotionally resonant adventure for audiences of all ages.
In the film, Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) plays Susan Murphy, a bride who is transformed into a 50-foot behemoth when she's struck by a meteor on her wedding day. Renamed Ginormica by the government, she's detained in a military facility run by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) until an extraterrestrial threat demands that Ginormica intervene on humanity's behalf. Working with her fellow monsters B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) and the Missing Link (Will Arnett), Ginormica fights off the attacking alien forces led by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), in the process discovering that becoming a superhuman "monster" was in effect the only way for her to become her true self.
Dreamworks Animation has endured a lot of ups and downs since the studio's inception with the release of Shrek, not least because its emphasis is often on timely rather than timeless pop culture references. It's as if their business model was based on the appeal of an Aladdin-style blitz of impersonations and caricatures that lose their relevance by the film's second viewing.
Thankfully, Monsters vs. Aliens creates a world that is both modern and classic, normal but just enough larger than life to make us believe that monsters can exist, and that they would be the natural defense for Earth against any kind of aliens. Though the monsters are definitely inspired by old-school creature features of the 1950s, including The Fly, The Blob and Creature From the Black Lagoon, the film never emphasizes that cinematic background, allowing audiences to acclimate themselves to each character without needing a refresher course on their atomic-age mythology.
Naturally, it helps that directors Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman enlisted a very talented group of actors to provide voices for their characters, and then allowed them to explore those characters so they're not only funny but sympathetic. As the amorphous B.O.B., Seth Rogen is hysterically, triumphantly idiotic, developing the creature's stupidity as an endearing quality even when he realizes that his outrage is based essentially on stealing another character's problems. Also good are Laurie and Arnett as Cockroach and Link, the brain and wannabe brawn of the film's monster coterie.
But it's Witherspoon's deeply evocative turn as Susan/Ginormica that really makes the movie work on both a visceral and emotional level; while there's certainly comedy to be mined from her evolving discovery of the advantages of being 49 feet, 11 inches tall, the diminutive actress gives Ginormica a sense of sadness and, eventually, empowerment that viewers can easily relate to.
It's also noteworthy that Monsters vs. Aliens is not only the best 3-D movie made thus far (it produced the least eyestrain of anything I've yet seen), but a rare example of an animated movie that features a strong, interesting female protagonist rather than a male one. But while either of those qualities is more than sufficient reason to see the film on an aesthetic or intellectual level, it's also an engaging, smart, funny and sweet adventure on a basic entertainment level. All of which qualifies Monsters vs. Aliens as family filmmaking and embodies the best and most essential aspects of that genre, because it reminds us that something that's designed to be exciting for everyone doesn't have to be excruciating for anyone.