Oh, Henry Selick has absolutely pwn3d Jeffrey Katzenberg. Pwn3d the hell out of him. For what feels like about five years, Katzenberg has been promising everyone who would listen that the first quarter of 2009 was going to bear witness to THE 3-D movie, the one that would knock us all on our asses with the incredible power of multidimensional cinema. And that movie did come out, and it was called Coraline. Meanwhile, Katzenberg's Great White Hope, Monsters vs. Aliens, turns out to be pretty much just another animated 3-D movie like we've been getting for a few years now. And that is, I promise, the last time I'll compare the two, because it's not at all fair that DreamWorks Animation got sniped like that. It's like if Darryl F. Zanuck had spent all of 1952 promising that The Robe was going to revolutionise everything we knew with its amazing widescreen magnificence, only to have Sam Spiegel and David Lean quietly release Lawrence of Arabia a decade ahead of schedule.

Anyway, the 3-D in Monsters vs. Aliens isn't all that bad compared to the bulk of the other films playing in the same sandbox. There are only a couple of those profoundly irritating "thing jumping straight out from the screen" tricks, and for the most part the technology is used to add depth to the film's many sprawling interiors and make the handful of extremely large characters even more towering. For the most part, it's completely ignorable, which I feel was probably not the point. But "ignorable" is still a step up - a big one - from "contemptibly annoying", so I guess Katzenberg was right: this is a much better use of 3-D than nearly everything else that has come out in the RealD/Tru 3D era.

Setting aside tech issues, the film itself is fairly standard-issue DreamWorks product, although it is one of the very best-animated the studio has ever produced. Kind of. A lot depends on the rather wriggly definition of the term "great animation". What I mean is this: for the first time in history, a DreamWorks cartoon has come out with characters whose eyes don't seem like hellish plastic shells hovering over their faces. I don't know if anyone in the world has been as bothered by DreamWorks's eyes as I have been since as far back as DreamWorks has been animating, but seeing them release a film where that problem doesn't occur is kind of like the feeling you get when a low but constant beeping noise is suddenly stopped, and the wash of pure silence that you get feels almost like Heaven. So kudos to the animators for that, and for the whimsical character design and most of the character animation, and I'll even agree to look away from the human characters' flesh, which is tremendously detailed but eerily rigid. All this said, Kung Fu Panda probably still stands as the studio's high-water mark.

So anyway, the plot is a mostly harmless and charming throwback to the drive-in movies of the 1950s, to such a degree that it's really quite startling when things like cell phones and modern cars wander into frame. The title tells you most of what you need to know: to combat an alien invasion, the U.S. government unleashes its menagerie of mutants and monsters that it has collected over the past 50 years, all of them unambiguously tied to a specific '50s genre classic: there's Doctor Cockroach (voiced by Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist with a bug head; the Missing Link (Will Arnett), half-man, half-fish; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a gelatinous blob with a voracious appetite; and Insectosaurus, a building-sized pupa who refers in a general way to all of the Japanese kaiju eiga, but is most clearly inspired by Mothra. The newest of the government's monsters is Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon), A.K.A. Ginormica, a woman who grows to fifty feet after being struck by a phlebotinum-enriched meteor on the day of her wedding to local weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd).

Let us not deny this about the film's small army of writers: they clearly adore old B-movies and had a blast recreating their tropes in loving detail (my personal favorite touch: it opens in Modesto, semi-rural California being the de facto setting for such a great many sci-fi cheapies). But accurate recreation of the mood of an old programmer is just about the only thing Monsters vs. Aliens has going for it. It's at best fitfully amusing (thanks almost entirely to Rogen, giving what might possibly be the best performance of his career), rarely as exciting an adventure movie as you might want it to be, and the only time that it showcases the visionary scope that an animated event movie ought to thrive on is in the design of the alien spaceship and the alien therein (the title, she lies): Gallaxhar, voiced by Rainn Wilson, a tentacled bit of melodramatic nasty who is without question the film's only completely engaging character.

For the most part, this is business as usual for a kiddie movie that exists only to make money and not to open minds: the plot is effectively just slightly patronising "girls can do stuff, too!" boilerplate that ceased to be revolutionary or courageous sometime back in the '70s (and it doesn't help that Susan is just about the most boring entity onscreen; Witherspoon probably has something to do with that), and the comedy is, if not as anxious and shrill as in most of the pop-culture-saturated DreamWorks projects, broad and clumsy, especially in the case of Steven Colbert's performance as the President of the United States, proof that you can just be a voice and still dally in the most outrageous mugging.

Given that the film was sold as the biggest kind of spectacle, it's disappointing though not surprising that it's so barbarically typical. You've seen this movie before, especially if you are a parent and have kids who need to see every goddamn cartoon that comes out (or, to be fair, if you are one of those kids; in which case you should probably not continue reading this blog, for it is full of the very naughtiest language). It's not bad bad, but it's pretty freaking boring. Which is perhaps the worse thing to be.