One of the central ironies of my movie-geek existence is that I love animation but have no patience for kids’ movies. Sometimes this means I’m pleasantly surprised by the animated children’s movies I do end up reviewing; nobody was more shocked than I was that I picked Kung Fu Panda as one of the best movies I saw last year (check out my original review here). But on the whole, I try to avoid kiddie comedies about animals with celebrity voices; I’m not their target audience, and I haven’t had the patience to wade through a movie’s worth of flatulence-related jokes and tired pop-culture references for one or two gags actually aimed at people old enough to shave since I suffered through the original Shrek in theaters (the last time I went to see something “to see what all the fuss is about”). So I was sort of dreading reviewing Monsters vs. Aliens. And while it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it might be, it also wasn’t anything special.
The premise of Monsters vs. Aliens will pique the interest of any other kid who used to fill spiral notebooks with drawings of, well, monsters fighting aliens. It opens with Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a normal gal who’s irradiated by a mysterious meteor on the day she’s supposed to marry a buffoonish local weatherman (Paul Rudd). Needless to say, spontaneously glowing green and growing to 50 feet in height while at the altar puts a kibosh on her nuptials. She wakes up in a mysterious U.S. government prison built in the 1950s to contain what was then an increasing number of freakish monsters sprouting up on American soil. There Susan meets Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a brilliant scientist who accidentally crossed himself with a cockroach, à la The Fly; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a sentient (if technically brainless) blob of blue goop accidentally created by an attempt to combine a genetically-engineered tomato and a desert topping; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a merman believed to be the missing link between humans and fish; and Insectosaurus, a Godzilla-sized insect grub that was the result of some Godzilla-style atomic testing.
Monsters vs. Aliens is a light-hearted superhero-style movie (maybe it’s because I’m a comic fan, but I got a heavy X-Men vibe from the concept of a group of freaks with amazing powers protecting a world that hates and fears them) with a nice message for kids to be yourself. Susan’s personal journey through the film, learning to accept her situation and to stop looking for her own self-worth through other peoples’ acceptance of her, makes her particularly positive role model for girls.
There’s a little less for adults to latch on to, but there are some really clever references to classic ‘50s monster movies (Link is obviously patterned off of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Ginormica/Susan is a riff on the 50 Foot Woman; the recording booth glimpsed in the extras shows some really cool, retro-style movie posters for each of the monsters as if they actually were featured in films of that period).
My problem with Monsters vs. Aliens was that it never quite gelled the way the better movies of its kind does. The action, while there’s a considerable amount of it, is largely unspectacular, and the best setpiece in the whole movie comes at the mid-point (a pretty cool sequence set on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge), and even then it doesn’t hold a candle to anything in, say, Kung Fu Panda. The character designs are passable, if a little generic, and the voice work is solid but unspectacular (as a devoted Arrested Development fan, I kept waiting for Arnett to cut loose and crack me up, but he never quite gets there).
Sometimes I feel bad about ragging too hard on a kids’ movie – I’m the first to admit I’m hardly the target audience for Monsters vs. Aliens – but then I think about movies that I really genuinely like that also happen to be aimed at younger audiences, like the aforementioned Kung Fu Panda and The Incredibles (which I realize I mention as the gold standard just about every time I discuss animated movies, but I happen to think it is the gold standard for movies like this). Movies like that, as well as WALL-E and 9 (read my review of that cool little movie here), prove that a movie can be entertaining for kids and not be bland and unimaginative.
Which sounds a bit harsh for a movie like Monsters vs. Aliens; it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just very content to aim for the middle of the road (one of the directors helmed the second Shrek movie, and I hate that franchise with a white-hot passion; it represents exactly the kind of garbage that I rail against whenever I talk about animated movies), and I think kids deserve better. The premise of Monsters vs. Aliens is perfect for a fun adventure movie for children, but there’s a strange hollowness to the proceedings. I didn’t hate Monsters vs. Aliens, and it’s certainly decent enough to hold a parent’s attention as they watch it with their child, but given the standards set by superior movies in this genre, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Monsters vs. Aliens is the first Blu-ray Disc I’ve reviewed, and it looks fantastic. Pretty much everything looks great in hi-def, but I find animation in particular looks really fantastic. (I’ve only picked up a few BDs since I got a Blu-ray player – well, technically, a PlayStation 3 – but roughly half of them are animation of some form or another.) The level of detail in the characters, from Link’s scales to Insectosaurus’ hair to Susan’s skin, is remarkable, and the bright colors in the movie’s palette (this is a kid’s movie after all) really pop from the screen.
Blu-ray, of course, also allows for even more special features, and the Monsters vs. Aliens disc is no exception. There’s a standard commentary track from co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and producer Lisa Stewart that’s actually quite dry, but the ‘Animators’ Corner’ Blu-ray-exclusive feature is far superior, basically a video commentary track that showcases storyboards and rough animation, cast and crew interviews and footage of the actors recording their lines. It’s pretty cool stuff, combining what are now standard DVD bonus material like commentary and making-of featurettes into something even cooler.
The other main extra feature is the new short film, B.O.B.’s Big Break, which is in 3D (the disc includes four pairs of old-fashioned, two-color 3D glasses). It’s not much different than the proper film in terms of its tone and style, but in the past these sorts of extras have sometimes been packaged as separate discs, so its inclusion on the disc is a nice touch. As great as this new 3D technology is in theaters (I didn’t see Monsters vs. Aliens in the cinema, but I have a friend who did, and while he really didn’t care for the movie, he said the 3D was amazing), it doesn’t seem to have evolved much in terms of the home experience. Like a lot of similar recent home-video 3D releases, like My Bloody Valentine 3D, the 3D in B.O.B.’s Big Break is sort of hit-and-miss; sometimes it really seems to work, and other times I just got a minor headache from looking at everything through green-and-red glasses.
There’s also a pile of standard DVD extras (albeit in HD), including some deleted scenes, a character-specific karaoke game, a look at other DreamWorks animated properties, including the Shrek Broadway musical. Overall this is a disc filled with stuff to keep the kids amused for hours.