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Monsters vs. Aliens: It Ain't No Kung Fu Panda

I was hoping Monsters vs. Aliens might be a documentary about the American Trial Lawyers Association vs. the Taliban. Maybe both sides would get wiped out? However, it turns out the movie is a cartoon about a gelatinous blue blob, a brainy cockroach, a fish-man, and an oafish grub, all of whom are being held prisoner at a secret government hideaway (“this place is an X-File wrapped in a cover-up and deep fried in a conspiracy.”) They are joined by a bride, who, when she encounters a radioactive meteorite, turns into an ungainly 50-foot feminist. Picture a sexy Janet Reno. Okay, that’s asking too much.

The bride (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is the least interesting of the monsters, yet has the central role as the zanier creatures befriend her while defending the earth against an alien invasion led by a four-eyed squid called Gallaxhar (the superb Rainn Wilson of The Office), who reassures the earthlings, “Just to recap — I come in peace. I mean you no harm, and you all will die.”

This DreamWorks film more or less continues a pattern: Pixar movies are (usually) classics, whereas DreamWorks movies drop lots of allusions to classics. Funny sequences like a riff on the alien-attracting melody in Close Encounters of the Third Kind keep things entertaining but also give the movie the disposability of late-night sketch comedy. This uneven comedy is a cute but routine spoof of flying saucer movies loaded with pop culture references (“Oh, spaceballs!” is one exclamation of woe). More than a few of the jokes are labored: “The earth’s getting warmer? It would be great to know that. It would be a very convenient truth.”

Monsters vs. Aliens doesn’t meet the standards of recent cartoon features like last year’s Kung Fu Panda and it’s far short of more grownup animated fare like Ratatouille, but it has plenty of roaring action scenes. When an alien robot probe attacks San Francisco, the 50-foot woman sticks her feet in a couple of convertibles and uses them as roller skates. Scenes like these are designed to please the kiddies, especially those who see the film at one of the many theaters offering it in 3-D (an effect that requires bulky glasses handed to you at the door).

The monsters, adorable as they are, have the same DNA as the ones in Monsters, Inc., one of the more feeble Pixar offerings. The blue blob known as B.O.B, for instance (he was born in a food laboratory where someone crossed a tomato with a ranch-flavored dessert topping), is voiced by Seth Rogen, who seems to be seamlessly taking over roles that John Goodman would once have done. He’s an indestructible one-eyed lump whose response to all danger is a slacker laugh. Hugh Laurie has a lot of fun playing the scientist/cockroach monster, a sort of scheming Moe to Rogen’s Curly, while Stephen Colbert gets laughs as the cowardly president whose war room is equipped with two giant red buttons: one is for launching all-out nuclear war; the other dispenses a latte. Will Arnett voices the semi-evolved ape-fish known as the Missing Link.

Reese Witherspoon’s character should have been called the Weakest Link. As the 50-foot bride (Ginormica) who learns that her ambitious weatherman husband isn’t interested in a strong, powerful wife, Witherspoon provides a voice that is totally colorless and almost humorless. Her character, meanwhile, is ginormously banal. “I’m not gonna shortchange myself ever again,” she declares, in what is supposed to be the movie’s big moral/applause line. But the reference is as old as Dr. Strangelove, and the whole movie stops dead (no jokes, no laser guns) to deliver this earnest little lump of obviousness. It’s been, what, 30, 40 years since animated movies showed female characters acting as though they were supposed to subordinate themselves to their guy? The little girls in the audience will be mystified at the idea that they’re not in charge of their own fates. Even their mothers have never been taught that they were in any way secondary. Sci-fi shouldn’t get mixed up with ancient history.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Directed by Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Rainn Wilson, Hugh Laurie, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Paul Rudd

3 stars/ 4

94 minutes/Rated PG