Monsters vs Aliens: A 3-D Doozy

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A scene from Monsters vs Aliens

On her wedding day, perky Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is pacing outside the chapel when, darn the luck, she's assaulted by a meteor. She stumbles into the ceremony, where she quickly expands to an unsuitable size — 49 ft. 11½ in., to be exact. Wearing the incredible elasto-gowns indispensable to expanding humans in family-friendly movies, Susan is secreted into an Area 51 prison and saddled with the monster moniker Ginormica. Given her powers of radioactive feminismo, she really should be called Gynormica — a heroine the followers of Hillary Clinton could believe in. (Watch TIME's video "Captain 3-D: Monster Maker.")

Like some supersequel — Freddy vs Jason or Alien vs Predator — that never bothered with any setup episodes, Monsters vs Aliens bursts onto the screen this weekend. Onto it and out of it, for this latest concoction from the tummlers at Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks shop is being tub-thumped as the first feature-length animated movie to be conceived as a 3-D spectacle (not just converted to the format). As such, it's zazzy and colorful, its creatures no less graphically plausible for seeming like they're ready to leap into your lap. (See pictures of animated movies for kids and adults.)

Score one on the technical front for DreamWorks in its long, intense battle with its biggest rival, Pixar. Hollywood insiders love a fight, and it's almost surprising that no one has made a steel-cage movie called Pixar vs DreamWorks.

To oversimplify with my usual abandon, I'd say that Pixar movies are animated features in the old, elevated Disney style, and DreamWorks films are flat-out cartoons, proud to be descended from the knockabout traditions of Warner Bros. (Bugs Bunny) and MGM (Tom and Jerry). You can spot the difference in the kinds of stories each studio favors. Pixar makes movies about couples — guy-guy in Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, Ratatouille and this summer's Up; guy-gal in Finding Nemo and WALL-E — who build a relationship out of initial antagonism and shared need. In other words, buddy stories and love stories. DreamWorks does workplace comedies about groups, in Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda, both Madagascars and the later Shreks. (Read about the future of 3-D movies.)

I'd go further and propose that the two types of plots reflect the separate means of their creation. Pixar writer-directors, working in a San Francisco suburb far from the seat of industry power, pursue their visions more or less on their own, despite all the support they get from their staff; DreamWorks movies, made near Hollywood, are team efforts. In Pixar features there's a purity of narrative line, an emotional clarity, that the DreamWorks films don't achieve or, for that matter, attempt. Katzenberg's boys, and the characters they birth, are Catskills entertainers, tossing gags into the audience like confetti, sweating to please you every single moment. A Pixar film may have one writer besides the director; it's total auteur handicrafting. Monsters vs Aliens credits two directors and half a dozen writers, and plays like the spiffiest sitcom — say, a superepisode of The Simpsons in which Marge grows huge, leaves Homer and doesn't return to Springfield.

This is not to say that Pixar movies are inevitably superior to the DreamWorks stuff — though Oscar voters seem to think so. Eight years ago, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established an award for Best Animated Feature, DreamWorks got the first one, for Shrek. Since then, Katzenberg's homegrown product has been shut out (the studio distributed Nick Park's veddy English Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), while Pixar has won four: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and WALL-E. "Each year I do one DreamWorks project," actor Jack Black told the crowd at this year's ceremony, "then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar." But in the court of public opinion, where people vote with their money, DreamWorks is the champ: over those eight years, its films have outgrossed Pixar's worldwide.

The usual spit and polish are on display in Monsters vs Aliens, directed by Rob Letterman (co-director of Shark Tale) and Conrad Vernon (co-director of Shrek 2). The movie imagines that in 1950 the government, fearful that the populace would freak out if it knew that monsters actually existed, put a top-secret plan into effect. General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) herded the lot of misfits into X-file confinement. Waiting for Susan are Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the gelatinous B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), the gatory Missing Link (Will Arnett) and a huge, grubby, voiceless Insectosaurus. It's another band of weirdo-heroes to follow the X-Men and Watchmen, with the usual mission: to save Planet Earth, this time from the space-traveling supervillain Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson).

Susan's fellow monsters have a feckless charm, but they're all but useless in approaching the job at hand. Susan/Ginormica does all the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively. The guys are there for what many women think men were put on earth to provide: comic relief. Outside the core group, the general is your standard-issue blowhard, while the U.S. President, voiced by Stephen Colbert, is a pompous doofus with little of the appeal of the character Colbert plays on his own show. Add Susan's clumsily ambitious near husband (Paul Rudd) to this bunch, and the movie is sort of Snow White and the Seven Dorks.

Although it's set in the present day, Monsters vs Aliens functions as a visual encyclopedia of antique pop culture. It assumes that viewers of all ages are so steeped in the '50s B-movie ethos that they'll laugh familiarly at references to The Fly, The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mothra and the 3-D paddleball effect from House of Wax. And, of course, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, of which Susan represents the absolutely cutest version.

For all the ingenuity in its premise and the ingratiating voice cast, the movie works better as a sci-fi action picture — with some extraterrestrial vistas that come close to WALL-E's in their palette and precision — than as a comedy. That's understandable. As the first of its kind, M vs A wants to parade the range of its 3-D effects. It's quite a show, from the intergalactic rock slide that starts things off to the climactic destruction of the Golden Gate bridge. That's a tribute to a similar scene in Ray Harryhausen's 1955 It Came from Beneath the Sea — and possibly a sly death-wish joke aimed at the Pixar artists who drive across the bridge to work every day.

The Pixarians, of course, could say they already did monsters in Monsters Inc., aliens in WALL-E and oddball superheroes in The Incredibles. But the DreamWorkers can be satisfied with having produced another crowd-pleasing, expert-babysitting vaudeville turn. What's not to like? Who's not to laugh?

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