There’s something bubbling in the zeitgeist at the moment, it seems, that’s driving us to try to recreate the 1950s B-movie vibe… I mean, even more than the last 20 years of Hollywood has been about transforming what used to be considered the stuff of the B-movies — monsters and gangsters and aliens — into the stuff of the A-movies. Why is a bit of a mystery: is it a longing for a simpler time when all we had to worry about was Communist takeover or nuclear annihilation? Whatever the reason, more than a few flicks of late have tried to glom onto adorably straightforward 50s paranoia, whether it’s the big-budget disaster of the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still or the very mildly charming indie pastiche Alien Trespass, opening soon in limited release.
None of these movies has gotten closer to capturing that magic than Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest CG confection from DreamWorks Animation, which succeeds by not taking itself too seriously but also via a deep understanding of how we continue to relate to these movies today, even after the Commie threat and mushroom clouds have receded as the stuff of popular worry. MvA isn’t merely a gloriously silly serving of retro 50s vibe — it’s also slathered in a snarky 21st-century frosting.
So of course it’s a joke that poor Susan Murphy (the voice of Reese Witherspoon: Four Christmases, Rendition) ends up in a government facility so secret that “it’s a crime even to say its name” when she gets zapped by a radioactive meteorite on her wedding day and is mutated into… well, not Bridezilla, because Susan is a really nice, really sweet girl, one who’s a bit too accommodating, actually, to her fiancé, TV weatherman Derek (the voice of Paul Rudd: I Love You, Man, Role Models). “Bridezilla” would have been kinda obvious, in fact, and the witty script — by a slew of writers with credits from The Larry Sanders Show to Kung Fu Panda — mostly avoids the obvious-obvious (a couple of kindergartner-ish poop and boob jokes aside) in favor of a sly approach to the obvious that doesn’t just deploy clichés with a wink but turns those clichés around and has fun with them. A monster named Susan isn’t very scary — the irradiated Susan is now 50 feet tall and superstrong — so she gets a scary new name… which is as much as bit of crafty commentary on marketing as it is merely ridiculous on its face. Why can’t a monster be named Susan? Or maybe we should reconsider that which we deem monstrous?
Monsters vs. Aliens — from DreamWorks Animation vets Rob Letterman (Shark Tale) and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2) — isn’t trying to be deep: that’s just an unintended side effect (and one the audience can safely ignore, if it wants to) when you riff on just about every monster movie ever made and do it this cleverly, in ways that know you know way too much about the subject of cinematic apocalypse already. Of course there are nods to everything pop culture has held dear for the last 60 years, from Star Trek to Dr. Strangelove to the illicit thrill we get from disaster movies that destroy beloved landmarks. But only a movie that appreciates and approves of how we’ve come to cherish even what is, on the surface, the dark side of this stuff can do what MvA does: give us a mad scientist who’s adorable in Dr. Cockroach (the voice of Hugh Laurie: Street Kings, Valiant), even though he’s post-Brundlfly. Or give us a sweet blob of self-aware chemical goo in B.O.B. (the voice of Seth Rogen: Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Pineapple Express) — that’s short for “benzoate-ostylezene-bicarbonate”). Or give the creature-from-the-Black Lagoon-ish Missing Link (the voice of Will Arnett: Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, Semi-Pro) something like a soul in his affection for the 350-foot tall baby grub they’re all sharing their top-secret monster quarters with.
They’re all the nicest monsters ever, and I don’t mean that in a facetious way. It’s the reason why Monsters vs. Aliens works. It’s not the beautifully stylized, visually witty animation — though I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and it is gorgeous — or the brilliant idea to cast Stephen Colbert (Strangers with Candy) as the President of the United States who’s wildly unable to cope with an alien invasion. It’s because the “monsters” called out to fight the alien (the voice of Rainn Wilson: Juno, The Last Mimzy) so wonderfully upend the paranoia inherent in the genre being sent up that the movie becomes a whole new creature. And not a montrous one, either.