DreamWorks, DreamWorks, DreamWorks! What is it? Do you have something like an “A Team” and a “B Team” — where the “A Team” is given time and the best writers to come up with a good film while the “B Team” is given a tight deadline and the former high school class clowns are let loose to try to put together a script? Do the people in charge have split personalities? Why is it that you never know which DreamWorks is going to show up when you sit down for one of their films? Will Monsters vs Aliens follow the Shrek 2 and Kung Fu Panda mold or will it be more in tune with the Shrek 3 and Shark Tale side of the studio? With DreamWorks it’s best to go in with lowered expectations and hope to be pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, you’ll have to keep hope alive for the next outing.

“A good script? Turns out you don’t need one!”

It is Susan’s wedding day and she is getting married to the man of her dreams. The fact that he announces a job interview will have to cancel their Parisian honeymoon slightly dampers things but is quickly put behind her as she prepares to walk down the aisle. A meteorite landing on her is a little harder to ignore though and soon the bride to be has grown 50 feet tall. She is captured by the government and put in a secret monster detention facility where she befriends other freaks of nature being kept from public view. An alien invasion forces the military to think outside the box, and the monsters are called upon to save humanity.

Yes, that really is the plot! There is not much there and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it could be a fun premise. The whole film is played as a series of set pieces hooked together with the flimsiest of story lines. That’s not necessarily a knock — it’s a device that has worked well before in Hollywood. But while the big scenes are fun, the connecting scenes here just drag on and on and completely sap any interest the audience might have had. This is where they try to build up some serious character development but it just falls flat. I will give them a lot of credit though for focusing the story on one character arc rather than trying to give every monster an equal share. It was the right decision, but it just wasn’t executed well. Once you realize you’re not watching one of the “A Team” DreamWorks films the next question is “What about the funny”? Many a bad DreamWorks film has been saved at the box office by bringing on the laughs. Here, however, the good jokes are few and far between. And worse, almost all were seen in the trailers. I saw the film in a crowded theatre and the lack of laughter was deafening. One last note on the script. As I’ve mentioned before, when critics say a film appeals to adults and kids, that does NOT mean it has separate jokes for different age levels. Hopefully there is enough to distract the kids from awkward moments like the one with a joke about Susan’s breasts and another (that could have been played a lot more subtle) where a girl tries to get a guy to have sex with her in a car.

The animation department at DreamWorks has their moments. When at their best they can challenge any one as the best in the business. The opening scenes of the film were stunning. And throughout the animation continues to shine. But the high quality really makes the not so good parts stick out. One of the first shots of the Golden Gate Bridge looks like an animated copy of a live action miniature with little toy cars on a badly constructed model. The character designs are very good, if a little unoriginal. Funnily enough it was the main character Susan who seemed to get the worst treatment. Maybe there are just so many ways you can draw a 50 foot tall woman, but she seems like a stock character not the lead.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help,
and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… The B Team

DreamWorks actually seemed to take a page from the Pixar playbook on voice talent this time out by not going after the biggest celebrities they could get — regardless of how they would fit the characters — but focusing more on quality. Reese Witherspoon (as Susan), Seth Rogen (as B.O.B.), and Kiefer Sutherland (as General Monger) are the standouts here with each giving credible, funny, and fitting performances. Hugh Laurie and Will Arnett are fine as the other monsters and, as probably planned, don’t steal the spotlight away from the main characters. Rainn Wilson as the villain Gallaxhar was a little weak for my tastes. Yes, he was supposed to be a comedic baddie, but I still think it could have been played a little stronger. Stephen Colbert as the President, while maybe a bit of inspired casting, was just not a good fit. It almost seemed like he was quite literally phoning it in.

I know it may seem I rip a lot on DreamWorks but they are supposed to be the best competition out there for the Disney/Pixar behemoth. And right now they are in danger of being eclipsed by Sony or Blue Sky in terms of quality stories — and even animation. Monsters vs Aliens seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources for the studio who recently gave us a blockbuster like Kung Fu Panda. That film had all the elements that make a DreamWorks film unique AND it was well made. With Madagascar 2 and now Monsters vs Aliens, it feels like DreamWorks is going backwards. And that should scare them more than any monster or alien could.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Monsters vs Aliens
DreamWorks Animation
March 27, 2009
94 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon