Susan Murphy has been hit with a big problem. After surviving a radioactive meteor strike, she finds herself fifty feet tall, captured by the military, living in a metal prison with bugs for friends, and tasked with defeating a killer robot. Fortunately, she’s a big-picture kind of gal. Her real problem comes when her fiance, an ambitious TV weatherman, tells her he doesn’t want to live under her enormous shadow.
The audience is meant to side with Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), but the studio behind Monsters vs Aliens probably feels great empathy for the self-involved reporter, Derek (Paul Rudd). After a decade spent making a dozen computer-animated films, Dreamworks Animation should be pretty tired of playing catch-up to the industry giant, Pixar.
Pixar is the Holy Reel—a film studio that consistently enjoys both critical and commercial success. The movie executives love the returns; the children love the characters; the critics love the sophistication. Critics are part of Dreamworks’ problem—every time they spit out a movie, we can’t resist the comparison.
But the studio invites the scrutiny by trying too hard to make Great Animated Movies that instantly enter the contemporary canon, like Pixar’s Toy Story (1995). Sometimes serendipitous timing or settings highlight their shortcomings, pitting their Antz against Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, or their forgettable Shark Tale against Pixar’s near-perfect Finding Nemo. And their most innovative film to date, 2001’s fractured fairy tale Shrek, has been spoilt by soggy sequels (with another, Shrek Goes Fourth, coming next year).
Monsters vs Aliens feels like more of the same—Pixar already did big, hairy creatures in Monsters, Inc. and provided the definitive animated action film with The Incredibles. Susan Murphy, or Ginormica, as she becomes known, is no Elastigirl. Admittedly, positive female protagonists are rare, and it is exciting to watch her sort out her life while saving it. But it is hard to embrace Susan for two reasons.
The first is her size, or more accurately, her proportions. Society is quite fond of supervising children, railing against the corrupting influence of everything from Movado to marijuana. But we apparently have no problem telling our little girls they should look like an anorexic 15-year-old all their lives. Susan is simultaneously sexualized and childlike—a combination that should cause nightmares for parents with girls.
The second is the fault of directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. Like boys in a sandbox, they are too anxious to destroy the city they had built (in this case, San Francisco, California), forgetting that we need to care about Susan along the way. Monsters vs Aliens is the first animated film made natively in 3-D (though we in Jamaica won’t get to see it) and the technology distracts the filmmakers. So we get mesmerizing shots of the Golden Gate Bridge collapsing into the sea, but they wash over us without much of an impact.
It’s tempting to think that Dreamworks will get it right next time. But with sequels to Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar and a Shrek spinoff in the pipeline, you’re better advised to wait a few months for the next gift from the benevolent gods of Pixar—Up, about an old man, a young boy, and a lot of balloons.