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Feature


On her wedding day Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is smacked with a radioactive meteor, and her nuptials are ruined by the resulting mutation. Now fifty feet tall, Susan is captured by a secret government agency headed by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland). In her new metal prison Susan, now dubbed ‘Ginormica’, meets her fellow monsters: B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and Insectosaurus. Meanwhile an alien overlord named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) detects quantonium radiation emanating from Earth, and dispatches a gigantic robot to collect it. The government strikes a deal with Monger, and the monsters are dispatched to fight the alien force in return for their freedom.

Monsters vs. Aliens
In brief, I found Monsters vs. Aliens just as forgettable in the long term as most of Dreamworks Animation’s lacklustre catalogue, but it’s about equal to the studio’s best in terms of pure entertainment value and a good follow-up to the studio’s first genuinely great film (arguably ever), Kung Fu Panda. The protagonists are again generally likable (unlike the increasingly difficult curmudgeons and self-centred brats of so many of the studio’s most popular films), the pacing is breathlessly speedy, the design is colourful and somewhat original, and the action is just as rousing as that found in most big budget, live-action summer fair. The film was massively overshadowed by the following month’s genuinely affecting Up, and it didn’t quite equal the creative beauty of Coraline, but it was a good stop-gap in a solid year for animation lovers.

Film lovers have seen plenty of successful and unsuccessful satirical takes on ’50s Red Scare sci-fi and horror ( Mars Attacks, Iron Giant, Fido), so Monsters vs. Aliens doesn’t score on concept originality points, but the filmmakers definitely know the era genre, and obviously hold it high regard. Half the fun here is in discovering all the in-jokes, references, and screen analogues. The lead characters are a good place to start. Insectosaurus represents Mothra, the Missing Link represents the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dr. Cockroach represents the Fly (right down to his Vincent Price moustache), B.O.B represents the Blob, and Ginormica, or Susan, is an obvious analogue take on the Fifty Foot Woman. Any semblance of plot takes a back seat to fulfilling sugar-fuelled boyhood dreams of old-school monsters fighting saucer-flying aliens, but there is fun to be found in this anticipation in this rare case (usually I hate that kind of thing). Deep down MvA is just another morality tale on being oneself, which is kind of a bummer, but for throw-away entertainment we could do much worse. Viewers looking for a heartfelt exploration of anachronism caked in analogy should probably just watch The Iron Giant again.

Monsters vs. Aliens
What it lacks in story smarts MvA mostly makes up for in clever design aesthetics. Everything looks familiar, and at times almost realistic in the fine details, but everything from the organic to the inorganic has been deformed into rounder shapes. It’s not as if bubbly versions of real life objects are a new concept (to the contrary they’re kind of the norm for animation throughout the ages), but MvA finds an uncanny balance between cartoony and realistic that most computer animated films cannot. I can’t picture the film finding a lasting place in the historical pantheon of animation, but the human character designs are definitely a big step for CG humans in animation. The humans are cartoony and as deformed as the stuff around them, far from realistic renderings, but their skin and hair details are almost photo-real, in so much as extremely hydrocephalic head textures can be. I’ll have to re-watch Up to recall for certain, but I remember the filmmakers using the same plasticine skin Pixar has used since The Incredibles.

Much of MvA’s action is based in three separate scales: that of normal humans, that of Susan, and that of Insectosaurus. The scale works in most cases, and aside from broadening the scope the differentiation amps the action scenes to epic levels. Kung Fu Panda and TMNT both featured fantastic martial arts animation, The Incredibles featured some of the best super-hero fisticuffs in film history, and the vast majority of Pixar movies feature knee-jangling chase scenes, but I can’t recall any American made CG cartoon with mayhem this massive. Much of this Godzilla sized action is created with the theatrical 3D format in mind, but it works just fine in 2D as well, especially high definition 2D, thanks to clever camera angles and movement. The animators also manage to give the characters proper weight and physical limitations, without dulling their more cartoony aspects. The speedy, shoot ‘em up, big bang last act never quite lives up to the promise of the high bar setting San Francisco robot take-down, which is a nearly perfect, child friendly homage to Toho’s best Kaiju.

Monsters vs. Aliens
The film’s humour is largely of the cheap variety, but the writers don’t only default to the studio’s usual lazy shot of mimicking pop-culture. The film regularly reference pop-culture, but it’s usually half century old pop-culture. On the whole the film is face-paced and light-hearted enough that even the more obvious jokes are at least nominally funny. The scene where a couple of stereotypical teenagers partake in major gender role reversal when confronted with a UFO has probably been done before, but still garners a hardy giggle. The sequences featuring Stephen Colbert’s President’s dealings with government types are usually predictable in a disappointingly un-funny way, but these (which made up most of the trailers) are relatively few and far between (it’s too bad because I’m a Colbert fan otherwise). Like Kung Fu Panda, and the mostly superior Pixar films, a lot of the best gags are character driven, and the one-off gags pretty consistently disappoint in comparison. I wish I could say that I was above the super-simple charms of Seth Rogan as B.O.B., but he’s the highlight of every scene. The physical comedy is quick as lightning, and pretty old-school as well, featuring obvious nods to The Three Stooges, and Chuck Jones’ best work.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Video


I saw Monsters vs. Aliens in digital 3D in theatres and the 3D effect, while working pretty well, depleted the fine details. Polarized 3D is not an option on the home video (for some reason), and unlike the recent Coraline release, Dreamworks doesn’t even offer a red/blue version. It’s kind of a bummer to not be offered the option, but the 2D version looks so damn perfect in 1080p it’s hard to realistically complain. This is very much a reference level transfer in details, contrast, clarity, and colour.

I’m immediately shocked at the minor skin textures, which were entirely unclear on the big screen thanks to the smoothing caused by the 3D effect. The human characters are, from this standpoint, a huge improvement over the plastic-looking humans found in most computer animated films. Other details follow suit. Check out the hairs on Insectosaurous, the tiny shiny bubbles on B.O.B., the veins in Dr. Cockroach’s eyes, and the scales on the Missing Link, which appear almost hand painted. On top of details are colours, another element that was lost a bit in 3D thanks to the dark tint of the polarized lenses. The bright hues are solid and pure in the way only animated films can produce. The direct digital transfer means there are no compression issues, and the lack of filmed elements means there are no artefacts. The incredible resolution also gives way to a slightly uncanny frame rate, which would possibly look even more uncanny if I had one of those really, really expensive sets, like the one I always see at Best Buy playing Bee Movie. In closing, I think Monsters vs. Aliens might be the only movie in history where a character breaks out of the 2.35:1 frame to address the audience. It worked better in 3D, but is still a fun little addition in 2D.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Audio


Monsters vs. Aliens is at least half high octane action movie, and it’s entirely animated, which means the sound effects work is big, loud, and constructed completely from scratch. This Dolby TrueHD track is just as ready for your next reference party as the HD video. Directional effects are all the hell over the place. It’s actually difficult to find a scene without impressive directional effects. The rear effects are often an important element in many of the better sight gags, like when the President shouts ‘Eat lead!’ and shoots at the alien robot, and the sound of the robot swallowing his bullet is heard in the rear right speaker. My favourite funny effect element is the constant suction-cup sound of Galaxar and his clones. When the clones move en-masse I couldn’t help but pretty much constantly chuckle. The musical score accounts for the ’50s/’60s era well, along with expectations that come with the genre, including both Hermann-esque Theremin, early rock, and plenty of John Williams swipes. The credit music is a good reason to sit through the rolling names.

Wilhelm Alert: B.O.B. tosses a Galaxar clone over a bridge in the giant spaceship, as he falls the clone lets out a healthy right channel Wilhelm.

Extras


The extras start with a few in-film experiences, including a filmmaker’s commentary, an ‘Animator’s Corner’ PiP option, and a trivia track. The commentary track features directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, and producer Lisa Stewart. The most surprising thing I learned from the whole track was how tight the film’s budget apparently was. It certainly looks like price was no object given the film’s incredible scope and detail. A lot of time is wasted congratulating the cast and crew (which is sometimes important because the cast is appropriately credited with some of the better jokes), but the vast majority of the track is about the huge changes in script. It unfortunately appears that the thin plot that made the final cut was at the risk of some really good stuff.

Monsters vs. Aliens
Though the film itself isn’t presented with a 3D option, there’s a whole section of extras devoted to the tradition red/blue style 3D, and four sets of glasses with the set. Even the menu in this section is 3D. There are two options: ‘B.O.B.’s big break’ and ‘Operation: Paddle Ball’. ‘B.O.B.’s Big Break’ is a short prequel adventure featuring the monsters trying to escape using B.O.B.’s briefly acquired ability to read thoughts. It’s cute, the 3D works pretty well (though the colours don’t work, of course), and the crew scored the original film’s A-list voice cast. ‘Operation: Paddle Ball’ is a 3D game, which is about as intuitive and fun as most Blu-ray games. Under the ‘Out-of-This-World 2D Fun’ one can find a 2D version of the short, and three Karaoke Music Party segments.

‘Modern Monster Movie Making’ (17:50, HD) is a sort of general look at the making of the film with a slant towards the technical developments like RealD, and the casting process. The behind the scenes on the actors is fun, but the footage of crew members watching test footage with polarized lenses on regular HD sets kind of pisses me off because I’d heard it was impossible. Why are we doing red/blue for the home video releases? The disc also features three deleted scenes (05:30, HD), two presented in storyboard form, with temp dialogue, and one in semi-complete animation.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Overall


Monsters vs. Aliens is one of Dreamworks Animation’s better features, but is still a bit of a throw-away, existing rather strongly in the moment, but quickly fading from memory. The comedy and action aspects are strong, and the nostalgia factor sets the film apart, but there isn’t a whole lot of story or analogy to deepen the pool. The stylistic elements of the film’s human characters may mark an important step for CG animation, but otherwise this one is just for fun. The disc itself is reference level stuff, featuring perfect and dynamic A/V. Extras aren’t incredible, but relatively entertaining, including some fun 3D pieces.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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