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Close Encounters in the Third Dimension

MOVIE REVIEW
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

MVA029
DreamWorks Animation

The DreamWorks Animation product “Monsters vs. Aliens” occasionally flirts with Pixar levels of brilliance before resigning itself to more tempered goals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The unquestioned brand leader’s knack for melding technical excellence with complex, literate storytelling cannot be easily replicated. A movie like this one, which ably disguises its conventional kids’ fare premise in a clever satiric shell, deserves admiration even if it never reaches comparably artful heights.

The narrative refits the ghoulish corporate world of “Monsters, Inc.” into a secret army facility à la “Hellboy,” in which monsters have been rounded up and stowed away. These include the giant gelatinous blob B.O.B. (voiced by Seth Rogen), a man-fish named the Missing Link (Will Arnett) and the appropriately named roach scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie). As the film begins they’re joined by Susan (Reese Witherspoon), also known as Ginormica, who has recently had her wedding day interrupted by a collision with a UFO packed with a mysterious substance that turned her into a 48-feet-tall giant.

When megalomaniac alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) sends a giant robot to Earth to reclaim that substance, the hapless U.S. president (Stephen Colbert) calls in the monsters to fight back. This results in a lot of punchy, well-designed action sequences, including one expertly set amid an abandoned San Francisco. Directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and their team of animators incorporate panoramic cityscapes and large, impressively designed interiors (such as a war room modeled on “Dr. Strangelove’s,” but bigger and more high-tech) into the 3D detail.

They’ve successfully added a layer of design to the proceedings without calling disproportionate attention to it. At times the 3D imagery even enhances the story’s poignancy. The overwhelming vastness amplifies the loneliness Susan feels as she speaks to her parents, walks through the city skyscrapers and finds herself otherwise confronted with her peculiarly isolating condition. The ease with which the 3D has been incorporated makes “Monsters vs. Aliens,” after “Coraline,” the second straight movie to show off the positive possibilities of the much maligned, though increasingly more utilized format.

The screenplay, credited to Mr. Letterman and four other writers, incorporates some funny throwaway jabs at our former president, a sci-fi reference or two, and at least one wholly lovable character in B.O.B, a blob without a brain nonetheless blessed with a perpetually sunny outlook on life. The film ultimately descends into standard self-empowerment territory as Susan and her fellow monsters learn to love their outcast selves, but it has a great time getting there.

MONSTERS VS. ALIENS

Opens on March 27 in the United States and on April 3 in Britain.

Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon; written by Mr. Letterman, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, based on a story by Mr. Letterman and Mr. Vernon; edited by Joyce Arrastia and Eric Dapkewicz; music by Henry Jackman; production designer, David James; produced by Lisa Stewart; released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Reese Witherspoon (Susan/Ginormica), Seth Rogen (B.O.B.), Hugh Laurie (Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D.), Will Arnett (the Missing Link), Kiefer Sutherland (General W. R. Monger), Rainn Wilson (Galaxhar), Paul Rudd (Derek Dietl) and Stephen Colbert (the President).

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