The days when I have to watch movies like Monsters vs. Aliens and find ways to like them are numbered. The Mannion boys are developing more grown-up tastes and are becoming more sophisticated in their critical judgments. When they like a movie now they don’t feel a need to love it uncritically, and they’re not hurt when either I or their mother aren’t crazy about something they enjoyed.
Sometimes they even like it when we don’t like something because it gives them a chance to argue with us.
They didn’t argue with me about Monsters vs. Aliens after we watched it for family movie night Friday. They didn’t seem at all eager to discuss it. They enjoyed it. They laughed. But they went right about getting ready for bed as soon as it was over---usually a good movie has them too keyed up---and they didn’t watch it again over the weekend. The week before, both of them, separately, rewatched Tootise.
Both do a pretty good job delivering Dustin Hoffman’s tomato speech and repeating Bill Murray’s one-liners.
As it almost always is, their first question when the credits rolled was “What did you think, Dad?” They ask their mother the same question, but for some reason they ask me first. “It was all right,” I said. Not that long ago that answer wouldn’t have satisfied them. They’d have demanded to know what I meant. What did I like? What didn’t I like? Why? Why? Why? This time they accepted it without much discussion, and I think it’s because they pretty much agreed. It was all right. Only all right.
They’ve seen better and know exactly what better is and what makes what’s better better.
That was a relief to me. I’ve never pretended that something awful was good, but I have tried not to spoil their fun by giving a bad movie they’ve enjoyed a thorough deconstruction. What I’ve tried to do is find something that was actually good, or at least not terrible, and focus on that, and then, if they pressed---they’ve always liked to ask “What didn’t you like?” too---made my point in the most off-hand way I could manage, trying to sound as if a monumentally stupid plot point was no big deal.
But like I said, Monsters vs. Aliens didn’t bowl them over, so they didn’t care that I was less than floored by it too. And this was a relief because I would have had a hard time coming up with things I liked about this one or thought weren’t terrible.
On the other hand, if they’d pressed, I’d have had a hard time coming up with things I thought were terrible.
I can think of lots of things that didn’t work.
The President’s close encounter with the alien robot probe.
Actually, the whole character of the President, who was voiced by Steve Colbert, but could as easily have been voiced by Jon Stewart, or Rachel Maddow, for all the voice mattered to the characterization.
And that was the case for almost all the voice work. It didn’t matter that Kiefer Sutherland did the voice for the General or that Hugh Laurie was the voice for Dr Cockroach or Reese Witherspoon the voice for Susan.
Not that I think it should matter because a famous actor or celebrity is providing the voice. It should matter because a good actor has something to bring to a good character that makes that character come alive.
The President, General Monger, Dr Cockroach, the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) aren’t characters. They’re jokes that are played out within thirty seconds of their first appearance.
“Oh, I get it. Dr Cockroach is a reference to The Fly! Ha! Ha! Ha!…Um, and?”
Which brings up another thing that didn’t work, and which doesn’t work as well as the folks at DreamWorks seem to think it works or else why do they rely on it so heavily to bring the funny in all their animated movies, the barrage of pop culture references. It’s lazy writing, and it’s also insulting, because most of it’s going right over the heads of the kids who are supposedly their audience. It’s like the occasional and usually sophomoric sex jokes that they slip in and the over-reliance of pop tunes on the soundtracks. A sop for the parents. It’s a message to the grown-ups: “Hey, we know you’re not really interested in our movie and here’s a cheap Starbucks reference that proves we know you’re out there and bored by all this. Please accept this as a form of apology.”
Pixar doesn’t do this. But I’ll get to what Pixar does that DreamWorks needs to learn from.
Laziness is the hallmark of DreamWorks’ animated movies, even the better ones (Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda. Not Antz though. Antz is in a league of its own.). The storylines, the characters---in their design, casting, and writing--- the overall look of each movie, the soundtracks, all seem to have been given only cursory thought. The producers’ main focus is on keeping things animated---that is, in motion in a way that calls attention to how clever the animators have been about keeping things moving.
Monsters vs. Aliens is lazier than even the two Madagascars and more dependent on its animation---on keeping things moving for the sake of keeping them moving---to force the audience to focus on the screen. There isn’t much coherence in either the story or the design or the storyboarding in the first half hour when the plot’s being laid out and the characters introduced, and after that, after the aliens land, things degenerate quickly into a confusing mish-mash of motion and color punctuated by explosions and close-ups of mouths wide-open in screaming horror.
And---spoiler alert---nothing that happens makes being a monster seem like an attractive career choice so when Susan decides her only options in life are between returning to normal human size so she can marry her jerk of a weatherman fiance or remaining gigantic and hanging out with the other monsters (all of whom are unattractive and charmless) it’s hard to cheer her on when she picks monstrosity over marriage.
At first glance, it appears that Susan is choosing to be her own person, even if that means being a freak, over living her life as another person’s dependent and appendage. But this turns out to be yet another variation of Hollywood’s beloved Be True to Yourself nonsense which always offers as the reward for being true to yourself a form of celebrity. Do what you want to do, be whatever you want to be, and crowds will gather to shower you with love and approval. What it gets down to is that Susan chooses to be a celebrity in her own right over being married to one. As a monster-heroine, she’ll have the multitudes gathering around to cheer. She’ll always stand out in the crowd now. (No, I’m not sorry at all for that one.)
It’s probably unfair to compare anybody else’s animated films to Pixar’s. And there are too many factors that make Pixar’s so much better than the computer animated efforts from other studios---DreamWorks, Fox (Robots, the Ice Age franchise), Disney (Meet the Robinsons, Bolt)---to get into. But for now, there’s this. Pixar’s scripts are never the result of lazy writing. The writers don’t resort to cheap pop culture references, potty jokes, catchy rock and roll tunes, and sexual innuendo to keep the grown-ups in their seats, because the grown-ups are seen as part of the audience.
Pixar doesn’t make movies for children that adults can tolerate. They make movies. This is a way of saying they tell stories with pictures, and they happen to choose stories that have elements that appeal to children and won’t go over their heads. They don’t make up stories as an excuse to animate them. They animate their stories because they, the storytellers, are artists and they think in drawings, and also because it’s cheaper and easier to animate a story about, oh, say a world where everyone’s a monster and the main source of energy is produced from scaring little children in our world or, say, a post-apocalyptic Earth where the only “living” beings left are a cockroach and a junk-collecting robot. Although it would have involved puppets or human beings in furry costumes standing in front of green screens, it would have been possible to make every single Pixar story as a live-action feature. Well, except for Cars, but that’s the weakest of Pixar’s films and there’s probably a cause and effect at work in that one.
What’s magical about Pixar’s films to me is that I “see” them as live-action movies while I’m watching them. Watching Monsters Inc., I see Billy Crystal and John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. Not in place of Mike and Sully and Randall, but as Mike and Sully and Randall.
I’m sort of saying that if Crystal and Goodman and Buscemi were monsters, that’s what they’d look like. The artists somehow captured their personas without making Mike and Sully and Randall caricatures of the actors doing their voices.
But what’s more important is that Mike and Sully and Randall are characters who come alive through their voices and through what those voices have to say. It’s a lovely blending of animation, writing, and acting.
It matters who’s doing the voices because what’s being said matters and how the characters are saying it matters.
John Goodman could not have played Mike. Billy Crystal could not have played Sully. And Steve Buscemi could not have played either.
But Kiefer Sutherland could as easily have done the voice for the Missing Link as Will Arnett could have done the voice for General Monger and either one could have played the President and Seth Rogen could have done the voices for everyone including Susan, because the characters don’t matter in their own right or even to the story---The government has a enormous underground complex stocked with monsters captured over the last fifty years. Why are these particular monsters the best ones to send out to fight off an alien invasion? I don’t want that question answered with exposition. I wanted to see it answered with what these monsters do. And that turns out to be nothing special that makes them them.
If I was a smarter art critic I would get into how each of Pixar’s movies looks like itself while DreamWorks’ movies look like DreamWorks movies. It’s the difference between art and hackwork, I suppose, but also the difference between seeing animation as drawings in motion and drawings as just the basic medium for animation---that is, for motion for motion’s sake.
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned the Shrek movies till now. The reason is that besides the obvious fact that Shrek the Third was universally and justly reviled, I have what amounts to a visual allergy to all three Shreks. It just gives me a headache to look at them. But as far as my point here goes, the first two Shreks are probably the best of DreamWorks’ animated films but they set the example that DreamWorks has followed in every movie since. Lazy use of pop culture references and pop tunes, quick resort to gross-out humor, one-off jokes in place of characters, with a final moral that it’s better to be a monster who’s a celebrity than a normal human being who’s just, you know, happy.
Now to get back to what I was saying up top. My days of having to like movies like Monsters vs. Aliens for the boys’ sake are about done. This is a good thing in that now family movie nights can include more grown-up fare, like Tootsie---In the last few months, we’ve also watched Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Milagro Beanfield War, and, of all things, Out of Sight---but there’s a downside.
There’s always a downside.
I was kind of looking forward to taking them to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
But I’ve been told that one’s for little kids.