We preview Monsters vs. Aliens 3-D, and we liked it!

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

DreamWorks Animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg screened about half an hour of the upcoming 3-D animated film Monsters vs. Aliens on Tuesday at the studio's collegiate campus in Glendale, Calif., and SCI FI Wire was there. Co-director Conrad Vernon was also on hand (the other director, Rob Letterman, was unable to attend).

Monsters vs. Aliens features the voice of Reese Witherspoon in her first animated feature as bride-to-be Susan, a woman who grows to 49 feet 11 inches tall (no Attack of the 50 Foot Woman here!) after being hit by a meteor. She is labeled a mutant by the U.S. military and placed into secure custody with other so-called "monsters": Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., an insect-like scientist voiced by Hugh Laurie; Missing Link, an ancient fish-man voiced by Will Arnett; B.O.B., a brainless yet witty gelatinous blob voiced by Seth Rogen; and Insectosaurus, a furry, childlike 350-foot-high grub. It seems hopeless for Susan until aliens (led by an evil giant robot called Gallaxhar, voiced by Rainn Wilson) invade our planet—and the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) and Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) decide those monsters are good for something after all.

Katzenberg began the presentation by saying that he believes 3-D is the third big revolution in film (following talkies in the '20s and color in the '30s). Though theatergoing has dropped off with the advent of big, flat-screen televisions, Katzenberg thinks that the best enticement to lure audiences back into theaters is the 3-D experience (and, he added with a laugh, it's practically pirate-proof!).

Katzenberg and Vernon screened four clips from the movie. We needed 3-D glasses to view the clips. The first montage showed the President's initial introduction to Gallaxhar; the second clip featured Susan's first meeting with her fellow monsters; the third showed the monster team rescuing stranded humans on the Golden Gate Bridge; and the final clip revealed an exciting chase with Susan in the lead, using any means necessary (such as automobiles as skateboards) to catch up with the octopuslike nemesis.

The first clip was perhaps the most impressive, suggesting classic SF movies from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Mars Attacks! The President, accompanied by a huge motorcade, a parade and what looks to be the entire military in salute, meets the alien creature in peace—but is greeted with a giant hammer fist. He evades the crushing blow in just the nick of time, runs to safety and barks to Monger, "Do something violent!"

Vernon says he and his creative team watched dozens of science fiction movies to help work in several homages. "But without being totally heavy-handed, you know, because we had to make the story work," he said. "We found places to kind of slip small things in. The fact that this giant robot has a huge, veiny eyeball that looks around at everybody, that's a staple in design of the old 1950s alien."

There's a scene in a war room, a nod to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, in which Monger decides how best to dispense with the nasty alien. Sutherland is definitely out of the Jack Bauer box with this character. "He created [Monger] mainly the first time he came in to record," Vernon said. "And we always had the idea that this is an atomic-age type movie, you know, from the B movies. Rob and I, my co-director, are huge, huge fans of Dr. Strangelove, and so we just said, 'Well, let's get that cigar-chomping, World War II grizzled general in there.' So we always had this idea of this guy that was a little more loud than Jack Bauer is. Kiefer was the one that came up with the Southern accent and just turned it into one of cowboy generals."

San Francisco is an unusual choice for the big showdown. "Rob always likes to say that it's not fair that New York always gets to be destroyed in these movies," Vernon says. "You know? We wanted a little West Coast shout-out, and so we thought: San Francisco! It has those hills, you know, and we knew we wanted Susan to put those cars on her feet [like skates] and get more of a Ronin or Streets of San Francisco kind of chase through there. And then at the same time we have one of the Seven Wonders of the World that we can completely destroy. We've got the Golden Gate Bridge out there that we can have our monsters tear down."

The look of the film is reminiscent of the recent (also 3-D) movie Bolt, but it's even more subdued and certainly less gimmicky than just about any other 3-D that comes to mind. In the half hour we saw, nothing "jumped out" or came off the screen. The experience is more organic, almost mirroring the way we actually see things.

The characters are cute, and they seem likable and kid-friendly (even the warmongering Monger isn't too extreme). Susan, with her shoulder-length white-blond hair and angular face, resembles her human counterpart in Witherspoon, as does the President (Colbert). There's a touch of Laurie in Mr. Cockroach's eyes, and even B.O.B., though pretty much shapeless, comes off soft and cuddly and reminiscent of Rogen.

Katzenberg confirmed that DreamWorks (with SoBe and Intel) plans to run a 3-D promo trailer before halftime during the broadcast of Super Bowl XLIII on NBC on Feb. 1. He joked that with a few beers, you might not need the glasses (the special specs will be readily available, free, through a variety of retail outlets).

Aliens vs. Monsters lands in theaters on March 27.