With references to House of Wax, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and George Lucas, the first 30 seconds of DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens makes it clear that the filmmakers wanted to pay homage to their favorite sci-fi films. Thankfully, the genre in-jokes aren't the focal point -- they just provide amusing window dressing so that movie-savvy parents can enjoy this elegantly simple tale as much as their kids.
The story centers on Susan (Reese Witherspoon), a bride whose wedding goes spectacularly wrong when she she's hit by a meteor outside the church and proceeds to grow 50 feet tall. Immediately after her transformation, the military swoops in and whisks her away to a detention center for monsters. Among her fellow inmates are the gelatinous, blue B.O.B. (Seth Rogen at his best); the half-insect, half-mad scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie); and the part fish, part human Missing Link (Will Arnett). Although Susan wants her freedom, she's told that this can never happen. But that changes when the evil alien Galaxhar (Rainn Wilson) threatens Earth, and General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) convinces the President (Stephen Colbert) that these monsters are the only weapons powerful enough to stop the intergalactic threat.
The action set pieces all utilize 3-D technology to impressive effect, and the filmmakers construct them to maximize the "Wow!" factor -- particularly when Susan skates through the steep streets of San Francisco with cars on her feet. Because the screenwriters make Susan the center of the movie, they don't have to bother with character arcs for anybody else, and streamlining the storytelling in this way allows the movie to skip along from action to comedy and back again without slowing down. This is a lean 90 minutes, packed with laughs and age-appropriate thrills -- not to mention a solid lesson for girls about self-respect. And while those adults fond of '50s sci-fi movies will appreciate the numerous nods to some legendary genre films, the string of references won't get in the way for kids who, if they love Monsters vs. Aliens enough, may start to discover stuff like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Fly, and The Blob all on their own. And that's reason enough to like it.