DreamWorks covered all the bases with "Monsters vs. Aliens": It's got instant references in the title alone to "Monsters, Inc.," "Alien," "Aliens," and "Alien vs. Predator." To say nothing of "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," which probably clinched it in terms of its super-huge box office in 2009. But wait; that's only the beginning.
It appears that everyone involved with the making of the picture was a lover of old-time monster-movies, because they packed "Monsters vs. Aliens" with references to just about every old sci-fi/fantasy monster movie ever made. I guarantee this: For adults, the movie is fun the first time through. I just can't guarantee that it would be too much fun after the initial viewing because the plot and characters are paper thin.
Here's the setup: A young woman named Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is about to be married to a selfish, narcissistic weatherman, Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd). However, on her wedding day, a meteorite hits her, causing her to grow to a gigantic height. OK, it could be worse; at least her clothes grow along with her. The military immediately sedate and capture her, incarcerating her in a secret facility where they've been holding various other "monsters" for the past fifty-odd years.
The general in charge of the facility is W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland, doing a fair George C. Scott impression). Susan's fellow inmates are B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a gelatinous snack-food resembling a mound of Jell-O; Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D (Hugh Laurie), a formerly human scientist who accidentally turned himself into a repulsive household pest; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a large fishlike creature; and Insectasaurus, a really big insect. They're a friendly lot, though, and after a moment's fright, Susan gets to like them.
For a major conflict, an evil alien spaceship comes to Earth, its evil captain, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), looking for an element he needs to do whatever evil deeds it is that evil captains of evil alien spaceships do. The President of the United States, President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert), a big goofus, tries to appease the outer-space miscreants, but to no avail. So the general recommends the government do the only thing it can against a more-powerful enemy: Send in the monsters. And so on and so forth.
Here's the thing: The animation is gorgeous, and there's enough color, action, and adventure to satisfy most children. Regardless, for adults the only real pleasure may be counting all the older films this new one conjures up. The fact is, "Monsters vs. Aliens" really isn't so much a movie in itself as it is a collection of other movies. Among many other things, you'll find reminders here of not only the movies listed in the first paragraph but "Superman," "House of Wax," "Independence Day," "Twister," "Beetlejuice," "The X-Files," "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "E.T.," "I, Robot," "Star Wars," "The Clone Wars," "The Blob," "The Fly," "Bullitt," "Ghostbusters," "Mars Attacks," "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," "Godzilla," "Super Woman," "Wall-E," "This Island Earth," "The Great Escape," "2001," "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," and "Mothra."
And that's just for starters. I mean, the filmmakers even set their movie in the little town of Modesto, California. Why? Because George Lucas was born there. That's how obscure some of the references are. Add to that a soundtrack score by Henry Jackman reminiscent of Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bare Mountain," and you get a movie you'll swear you've seen a dozen times before. Well, that was the filmmakers' intent, so you can't say they didn't succeed.
Be that as it may, there is no serious story line here, just a group of good Earth monsters battling a gang of bad space-alien monsters. Worse, there are so many characters running around in so short a film, the scriptwriters (five of them) never have time to flesh out anybody properly. Unlike, say, "Monsters, Inc.," where Pixar developed two main characters so well we came to love them, we don't care much about any of the people or monsters in "Monsters vs. Aliens," not even the main character, Susan (whom the general nicknames "Ginormica"). And worse yet, despite the famous voice talents involved, only a couple of them--Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland--do anything to distinguish themselves or bring any real variety or life to their characterizations. I'd be willing to bet that most viewers would have no idea who was voicing most of the parts, or care, without a list of names in front of them.
I found a couple of good laughs in "Monsters vs. Aliens" and a few smiles, nothing more. Perhaps on a big motion-picture theater screen in its original 3-D, I'd feel differently, I don't know. Otherwise, it comes off rather flat. What I can say for sure is that the movie is mainly for kids.
The DreamWorks video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 audio-video codec to reproduce the film's 2.35:1 theatrical ratio image. The picture is nearly flawless, as we have come to expect from most digital CGI animations these days. Definition is crisp, detailing is pinpoint, and colors are natural, if a tad subdued. In many theaters DreamWorks exhibited the movie in 3-D, making me wonder as I watched it if converting the film from its original 3-D to 2-D might have caused some veiling in the process. Maybe, yet it's still mighty good, and I'm glad the studio didn't make us watch it in the inferior 3-D process that requires using those cheap red-and-blue lenses that wash out the hues. The animation, as I've said before, is gorgeous, and the many visual effects designed specifically to take advantage of the film's 3-D process don't distract too much from the film's beauty.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound is awesome for so unassuming a picture. It's terrifically spacious, smooth, and all enveloping, with a huge dynamic range and an equally huge impact. At one point a gun goes off just between the front and back-right speakers that darned near startled me out of my seat. I actually said something aloud at that point that surprised the Wife-O-Meter almost as much as the noise itself.
The first thing I noticed about the disc is that it took an uncommonly long time to load. Although I made no actual comparison tests, it seemed easily to match the longest of Disney's BD titles in starting up and getting to the main menu. The next thing I noticed was that the only way I could get to the "Sneak Peek" segment prominently announced on the keep case was to press the "Do Not Press" button above the main menu items. Oh, dear.... Well, at least it was an obvious Easter egg to spot.
Anyway, the extras, all of which are in high def, begin with a filmmakers' commentary by producer Lisa Stewart and co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. Following that are two Blu-ray exclusives: "The Animator's Corner," a picture-in-picture affair with actors and crew, and a "Trivia Track" (HD) providing pop-up bits of information as you watch the film.
Next is a section called "Monsters 3-D" that includes "Bob's Big Break," an all-new, thirteen-minute 3-D adventure, and "Paddle Ball," a game. Both of these things require the use of the included cardboard 3-D glasses (they provide four pair), which render a sort-of 3-D effect at the expense of washed-out colors and a general discomfort if you wear eyeglasses, as I do. Then there is a section called "Out of This World 2-D Fun" that includes a regular 2-D version of "Bob's Big Break," which looks about 100% better than the 3-D presentation, and a "Karaoke Music Party" where you can sing along on several numbers with the film's stars.
After those items are three deleted scenes, about five minutes worth, mostly in rough-draft form; "Modern Monster Movie-Making," a seventeen-minute featurette with the DreamWorks top brass telling us how wonderful the new 3-D process is (referring to the technically advanced theatrical 3-D process, not the one on the disc); the aforementioned "Top Secret Sneak Peek Files," which give you glimpses of four upcoming DW projects; and a "DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox," where you can choose to watch musical excerpts from some of your favorite DreamWorks animated films.
The extras conclude with twenty-four scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
For a slightly more positive point of view, we hear from the Wife-O-Meter, who liked guessing at all the allusions to other movies. She rates the film an 8/10 for kids and a 6/10 for adults. OK, that's not too far different from my own rating of 5/10 for adults. And I agree that for kids "Monsters vs. Aliens" has a lot of color and action, and as the Wife-O-Meter also says, it's not too scary. Fair enough. As long as you're a kid.