DreamWorks // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // October 8th, 2009
Alien problem? Monster solution.
Monsters. Versus. Aliens. Sure, the title promises everything you could ever want, but does the movie deliver?
On the day of her dream wedding, mild-mannerd/normal-sized Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon, Election)is hit by a meteor (I hate it when that happens). Before long, she's growing to giant size in the middle of her wedding vows. sending a church full of friends and family fleeing in terror. Captured by the U.S. government and renamed Ginormica, Susan becomes part of a super-secret team of monsters imprisoned/employed by the military. There's B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, Observe and Report), a sweet but very stupid indestructible blob of gelatinous goo; The Missing Link (Will Arnett, Blades of Glory), half-man, half-reptile (essentially the Creature from the Black Lagoon); Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, Street Kings), a mad scientist with -- you guessed it -- the head of a cockroach (think The Fly) and Insectosaurus, a giant-sized, furry bug. When a hostile alien invades Earth in search of quantonium (the very substance that made Susan a giant), Susan and the monsters are commissioned by General H.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland, Mirrors) to fight back.
Monsters vs. Aliens had me at Monsters vs. Aliens. I can't think of a recent movie that promised more with its title -- not just to the 11-year old boy in me, but to the 32-year old man. I want to watch a movie about monsters and aliens. Preferably fighting. If Jennifer Garner is somehow in it, all the better, but it's not necessary. I'll settle for all of the fighting monsters and aliens.
Unfortunately, Monsters vs. Aliens lost me when I actually watched it; it turns out the title may be the best thing about it. It's not a bad movie, and there are reasons to like it -- the nods to '50s horror and sci-fi are fun (but too few) and some of the action sequences (like an early one on the Golden Gate Bridge) pack some punch. The problems, however, tend to outweigh what works, and you're left with a movie that's too long (by about 15 minutes, I'd say), doesn't have very interesting characters and too little story to speak of. It's colorful and energetic -- and always very busy -- but it's too shapeless and hollow to really succeed. It's probably not fair to hold it up against the work that Pixar (the gold standard of animated films) is doing, but it's also difficult not to do so; Monsters vs. Aliens badly wants to be The Incredibles both in theme and execution, but it comes up quite short.
The film continues in the tradition of other DreamWorks animated films in relying too heavily on a jokey script that's not all that funny. Rather than trying to make everyone laugh (the way Pixar is consistently able to do), the jokes are sharply divided between kids' stuff and the obvious "adult" jokes; unfortunately, those are pretty clumsy and not very funny, either (like naming the General character W.R. Monger...ha?). The voice work is ok, but largely uninspired; Reese Witherspoon brings nothing to the lead role, and even dependable actors like Rainn Wilson and Will Arnett aren't able to find much to do. It doesn't help that they really don't have characters to play; Arnett's Missing Link, in particular, is probably the weakest character in the film despite the fact that he should be one of the coolest. Seth Rogen, though feeling a bit miscast, adds some goofy sweetness to the gelatinous B.O.B., but it's really only Hugh Laurie that brings his A-game to Dr. Cockroach (though I should also mention that Paul Rudd and Stephen Colbert are funny in smaller parts). Once again, I'm reminded of just how creative and perfect Pixar's voice casting is: Sarah Vowell? Ed Asner? Patton Oswalt? All inspired -- and not necessarily obvious -- choices.
Even though Monsters vs. Aliens is a disappointment as a movie, the Blu-ray disc of the film is a thing of beauty. The 2.40:1 1080p transfer is incredibly vibrant and sharp; the image boasts exquisite detail (from the freckles and pores on Ginormica/Susan's face to every individual hair on Insectosaurus ) and bright, beautiful colors. If you're someone who's still on the fence about making the leap to HD and Blu-ray, the video quality on Monsters vs. Aliens will surely convince you. It's that good. Just as strong is the disc's 5.1 TruHD audio track -- one of the best, most immersive audio tracks I've ever played on my home theater. Each channel is used to the fullest extent, from planes and spaceships whizzing around behind your head to the heavy, low-end rumble of every explosion. The dialogue never suffers as a result, either. The mix is a ton of fun, picking up a lot of the film's slack and making you want to put the disc on again once it's over -- not because you love the movie so much, but because the disc allows you to get the most out of your setup. Both the video and audio on Monsters vs. Aliens are reference quality.
DreamWorks has included a nice helping of extras on the Monsters vs. Aliens Blu-ray, too. First up is a filmmakers' commentary, which is lively and spirited and still delivers to convey some good information (though sometimes not enough; there is a lot of talk early on about how a change in Susan's hairstyle was out of their budget, but no explanation of why that would be) amidst all the good times. A second feature, called "The Animator's Corner," is somewhat like a second commentary: it's a feature-length look at the animation process that plays in the lower right hand corner of the film. There is some overlap of the material found in the commentary and in some of the other featurettes, but it's still a really interesting piece for anyone curious about computer animation. A trivia track can also be played over the film, but it's pretty lighthearted and goofy. Of the three options, this is the one that's most easily skipped.
Though DreamWorks hasn't seen fit to include a 3-D presentation of Monsters vs. Aliens, the disc comes with four (four!) sets of 3-D glasses. That's because a 13-minute 3-D animated short, "B.O.B.'s Big Break," has been included. The cartoon itself is little more than a bit of fluff featuring the movie's monster characters, but the 3-D is actually pretty effective. It makes you wish the entire film could be viewed in 3-D (though 3-D on home video isn't quite there yet). A second 3-D feature, an interactive "Paddle Ball" game, is mostly a waste of time, essentially included as a way of shoehorning in the film's paddle ball opening in actual 3-D. "B.O.B.'s Big Break" can also be viewed in standard 2-D.
Three deleted scenes are included; the first two are presented in rough animatic form, and the third combines some unfinished animation with a picture-in-picture of Seth Rogen performing his lines. None of the deleted scenes are very interesting from a content perspective, but their inclusion does allow you to see some of how the computer animation process evolves during the making of a film. Also on the disc are two featurettes, "Modern Monster Movie Making" and "Tech of MVA," both of which are pretty standard promotional pieces covering the cast and the "new" 3-D filmmaking process used in Monsters vs. Aliens. What's most noteworthy about these pieces is that they include some not-so-subtle plugs for HP technology -- at times, the featurettes become blatant commercials. Is this the future? Product placement in home video bonus material? If so, I will quickly lose interest in watching any of it.
Rounding out the bonus section is the Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox, which allows you to watch mini music videos from a number of Dreamworks animated films like Shrek, Flushed Away and Over the Hedge. You can watch each individually, or enable the "play all" function by choosing the little DreamWorks icon on the far right.
I'm sure my disappointment with Monsters vs. Aliens owes a lot to inflated expectations, but how can I not get overly excited with a title like that? It's a fine time-waster, and I'm sure my son will one day get a kick out of it. And, if it helps me introduce him to the movies it's cribbing from (stuff like the original The Blob and The Fly), it will totally be worth it. If nothing else, the technical presentation is so good that it's worth watching whether you like the film or not.
The movie is just barely Guilty; the disc is not.
Review content copyright © 2009 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Trivia Track
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Film
* Video Jukebox
* Official Site