Apologies in advance for another of my "how-good-are-3D-films-getting" rants, but I honestly can't help myself. Because it's true – as digital filmmaking technology gets better and cheaper, the films improve in leaps and bounds.
Take this latest effort from DreamWorks, which has always lagged behind Pixar in the digital animation stakes. Monsters vs Aliens is not just the best animated film that studio has released in some time – yes, better than Shrek (especially the third one) and Kung Fu Panda – but also one of the best in the recent crop of 3D films to hit our screens. I've always been a sucker for 3D, but like most people found that the crappy coloured glasses used in the 50s and 70s gave me a headache and eyestrain. But the new polarising technology eliminates all that plus gives us a clear, sharp picture and a truly amazing 3D experience – especially when seen at an Imax theatre.
Anyway, enough raving. What about the film itself? If you love animation as much as I do, and if you are a huge fan of classic B-grade 50s sci-fi (as I am) then you're simply going to love it. The plot's pretty straight-foward: bride-to-be Susan Murphy (Witherspoon) finds her dream wedding day turned into a nightmare when, after being hit by a meteor, she suddenly grows to 50 feet tall. Well, almost 50 feet – she actually shoots up to 49 feet and 11 inches ... maybe it's a copyright thing? She's captured by a secret US Government department and taken to a hidden base where she's renamed Ginormica and joins a motley bunch of monsters and mutants – Dr Cockroach (Laurie), half-man/half-apelike lizard-thing The Missing Link (Arnett), the gelatinous, and very stupid, Bob (Rogen) and the giant bug Insectosaurus. The monsters are kept locked away so as not to scare the general population, but when San Francisco is attacked by a giant alien robot, the monsters are sent into battle.
Monsters vs Aliens is, for the most part, a triumph. The animation is bright and slick, with exceptional character design. The voice cast is spot-on – particularly Colbert as the US President and Sutherland as the feisty General WR Monger. The dialogue is crisp and witty. And the "thrusting-out-at-you" 3D gimmickry is, mercifully, in short supply. There's more than enough here to keep the kids entertained for 94 minutes; and as a bonus, there's just as much for adults. As mentioned earlier, all the monsters – and even the aliens – are based on wonderful B-grade 50s flicks. As you're watching, see if you can pick the characters from The Blob, The Creature From the Black Lagoon (which was also made in 3D), The Fly and Mothra. This is set to be a huge hit for DreamWorks and takes them a step closer to being a true rival to Pixar. All that's missing is that indefinable something that Pixar have in all their films. I don't know what it is, but it's there. If DreamWorks can find that, then there will be no stopping them producing monster hit after monster hit.
SECOND OPINION | Justin Bateman ** Right, I think we need a counterbalance to Stuart’s glowing review above. And as he’s already covered the plot, I won’t bother. Before I begin, I should make two things abundantly clear. First of all, I didn’t see this in 3D. But I seriously doubt that it had anything like the sumptuous landscapes there were in Bolt so I’d be surprised if it would add that many stars to my rating. Secondly, I’m generally a fan of big screen animations so it’s not like I have an axe to grind here. Even not in 3D, Monsters vs Aliens looks pretty good, so that’s not the issue. The cast is also excellent with Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland the outstanding support to Reese Witherspoon’s leading lady. But beyond this, things start to get a bit sub-standard. The most apparent one for me was a distinct lack of empathy for any of the characters. Susan/Ginormica gets used to the idea of her new life all too readily so there’s never any concern for her emotional wellbeing. Meanwhile, her new monster friends are all so agreeable and happy-go-lucky that you can’t imagine they’ll be too put out even if the aliens did take over the planet. Then there are the jokes, or rather, the lack of them.
One brilliant sight gag involving Ginormica and a hilarious sequence involving the President and a keyboard aside, the jokes are thin on the ground. Slapstick will always have its place in animation but the reliance on it here seems to be down to a lack of decent joke writing. The script isn’t bad, far from it, it’s just not very funny. It’s certainly got more in the way of action than Bolt, for example, so younger viewers may well prefer it. But a truly great film, animated or otherwise, should appeal to everyone and in this regard Monsters vs Aliens falls quite a long way short.