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Monsters and gender

Impressive 3-D, but mixed messages could trip kids.

'MONSTERS VS. ALIENS': Dreamworks' latest.
  • 'MONSTERS VS. ALIENS': Dreamworks' latest.

The film company Dreamworks will continue to fail as long as it insists on making kids movies with adults in mind. Don't get me wrong: The producers of “Shrek” will always sell popcorn. I suppose that's the point, but their family films will never approach art. They couldn't pull off “The Iron Giant.” They won't match “Wall-E.” They'll never make the kind of impression on childhoods that will last long after children's eyes recover from their bright and empty bombardment. At least, given the manifold offenses of “Monsters vs. Aliens,” we can only hope that's the case.

One of the founders of Dreamworks, Steven Spielberg, made “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” two family classics that are among the most genuinely beautiful films ever made, both having stretched and reshaped our capacity for wonder. The film company's latest foray into extra-terrestrial invasion references each film explicitly, and it indeed proves itself able to drop our jaws as pure spectacle. But while this is easily the best use of 3-D I've yet seen, employing light and deep movement unlike any other film of its kind, those dropped jaws will inevitably give way to drool.

Loosely centered on Susan, a woman only too happy to buy into society's version of happiness, the film's real subject is gender roles. Engaged to a narcissistic dud who values her only second to his career as a would-be anchorperson, she's clueless to her situation. Lucky for her, she's struck by a giant asteroid on her wedding day. The asteroid doesn't kill her, but causes her to grow to an enormous size. Susan's husband-to-be reacts predictably, rejecting her sudden difference out of hand.

But wait: turns out the rock was filled with a rare galactic material sought by an evil alien overlord. The government shows up and stows Susan away with assorted other monsters of similarly wild origins, until said overlord shows up looking for that galactic material and the monsters are enlisted to fight off invasion. Susan, having at first rejected the change, soon embraces her newfound power, discovering something in herself that she never suspected.

I suppose that's all well and good. I'm sure little girls will learn something about how society shapes concepts of femininity. But what else will they learn? Well, from a scene where government agents state the need to gather “our greatest scientific minds,” they'll learn that any such person should “Get India on the phone.” Also, when Susan states the need to shrink down to “normal,” they'll learn that “normal” is any woman under six foot eight. And that's just two examples of the wisdom to be found in concepts of difference.

This movie isn't really bigoted, only too sophisticated for its own good. The jokes in the previous paragraph are meant to be reflexive, to comment on ignorance and stereotype, but they are so sarcastic that they can only reasonably register with adults. Don't pat yourself on the back for reading the irony. This is not intelligence but worldly glibness. Such sophisticated humor isn't always supposed to be instructive. When Susan is told her monster codename is “Ginormica,” surely the adults are the only people in the room grasping the anatomical reference, which seems obscene to me in this context. And in a scene where a flamboyantly closeted male gymnast refuses the advances of an aggressive female companion, your child will learn that anybody can be effeminate. As a logical extension of this knowledge, your child can only suspect once and for all that a person is not defined by whether they are a man or a woman, but by whether they are bold and manly or effeminate and weak. What a dangerous lesson.


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