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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Monsters vs. Aliens (Blu-ray)
Monsters vs. Aliens (Blu-ray)
Paramount // PG // September 29, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 3, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Monsters vs. Aliens: with a title like that, what else do you really need to know?

Oh, don't
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fret, though: I'll run through the plot anyway. You know how they say it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before doing the whole ring-swapping thing? Turns out...? Kinda true. Susan (Reese Witherspoon) took it in stride when her husband-to-be told her that he's blowing off their Parisian honeymoon to audition for a TV anchor spot in Fresno, but when a fallen meteor makes her sprout up to fiftysomething feet tall, the feds swoop in and kidnap her before the "I do" routine, and she's scuttled off to a monster prison so secret that even saying its name out loud is a federal offense?!?!? Yup. Bad luck.

At least she's not holed up in the monster-clink alone. General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) has been in the monster-wrangling racket for fifty years now, and he has a stack of other things-that-go-bump-in-the-night in the same cellblock: a science experiment gone horribly wrong! by the name of Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the half-ape/half-fish Missing Link (Will Arnett), a tomato-turned-brainless-amorphous-blob that you can just call B.O.B. (scene stealer Seth Rogen), and the twenty-story hamster-caterpillar hybrid Insectosaurus. The other monsters had spent the last half-century twiddling their thumbs...or at least they would've if they had thumbs...removed from the outside world, but SusanGinormica isn't cut out to spend the rest of her natural life in an oversized ant farm. She wants out, and out she goes. Nah, ornery ol' General Monger doesn't open the gates so Suzie Q can reunite with her pint-size fiancé; he lets 'em out to stave off an otherworldly invasion led by the multitentacled menace of Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson)! So...yeah, like I said: monsters vs. aliens.

I like monsters. I like aliens. So, Monsters vs. Aliens: two great tastes that taste great together, right? Um, kind of. The movie definitely knows how to coax my inner nerd out of his shell. I mean, it belts out homages to oodles of my favorite movies, from kinda-sorta-obscurities like It Came from Beneath the Sea all the way to such blockbusters as Jaws, Dr. Strangelove, and E.T. The score worms a theremin into a rendition of "Planet Claire", and the full version of that B-52's track blasts over the end credits. The main characters are homages to drive-in mainstays like The Fly, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beach Girls and the Monster, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Mothra, and The Blob...heck, there's an eerily accurate reproduction of one of The Blob's most iconic shots to boot. The movie even has the President of These United States -- played by Stephen Colbert, for crying out loud -- stepping in front of a Yamaha DX-7 and noodling the riff from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to chat up a colossal alien war-bot. My head exploded
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four times with that sort of geek overload. Dreamworks has piled together a really great cast too, and aside from all the other names I rattled off earlier, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Jeffrey Tambor, Julie White, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, and Ed Helms also pop up.

Monsters vs. Aliens has a blast dropping these vintage drive-in beasties off in the present day, and it riffs on a lot of the clichés you've probably been trained to expect. Pretty much every schlocky sci-fi flick has a necking couple interrupted by a flash in the sky, but this movie grabs that baton and tears off into a completely different direction. Monsters vs. Aliens also scores some of its biggest laughs subverting the standard issue plot point where our heroes go undercover as badniks to infiltrate the enemy stronghold. It doesn't seem to lean on hypercurrent pop culture references the way a lot of other Dreamworks' animated movies do, and a spastic round of Dance Dance Revolution is about as far as it veers towards that heading. Some of the best stuff comes from the banter between the monsters, and even though Ginormica is technically the star this time around, B.O.B. runs away with every last scene he's in.

From the otherworldly interior of Gallaxhar's ship to a meticulous reproduction of The City by the Bay, the production design is unreal. The spats between the monsters and the aliens aren't just a goofy, cartoonish afterthought; these are the sorts of titanic action setpieces that wouldn't feel even a little bit out of place in a $175 million, live-action summer blockbuster. I mean, we're lookin' at the might of the U.S. military lobbing eight zillion rockets, mortars, missiles, and bullets at an oversized alien war machine. After stomping on a couple of sedans, Ginormica rollerskates through the swooping streets of San Francisco with a thirty story robot in chase, and the two of 'em wind up trashing the Golden Gate Bridge in an epic and surprisingly intense battle afterwards. Oh, and all of this is before Gallaxhar breaks out the most sophisticated clone army
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gear this side of Kamino.

So, you've got a stack of gigantic action setpieces, an at least sporadically clever sense of humor, no quadruple-underlined moral message, and...well, monsters versus aliens: what's not to like? Well, one hiccup is that Monsters vs. Aliens has a tendency to pile together these big, big scenes and then ease up on the throttle afterwards. It's kind of like mashing the pedal against bare metal as you're tooling down the interstate, revving up to 95 miles an hour, and then taking your foot off the gas to just coast for eight minutes straight. Monsters vs. Aliens crams most of its best ideas into a handful of scenes, and while those really are great enough for the movie to coast along on, I found myself not caring all that much about the stuff in between. The connective tissue this time around doesn't plod around or trip on its flopsweat, but it settles for good enough. I just wanted more: maybe some characters I could sink my teeth into, more gags lobbed out when the movie decides it's time to nudge the story along again, one more hypercaffeinated action sequence...something. The hit-to-miss ratio for the jokes winds up being kinda weak overall, and although it's neat to see a big animated movie like this rooted around a strong female hero-type, Susan just...isn't an overwhelmingly interesting character. I like her and all, but the emphasis on her arc shoves the more monstery monsters off to the sidelines, and I can't help but wonder if Monsters vs. Aliens might've played better if her storyline had been dialed back even a little to give the beasties more time to stretch their legs.

I really dug Kung Fu Panda, and I strolled in expecting Monsters vs. Aliens to rank a couple notches above that. Nope. I really do like Monsters vs. Aliens, though, and I'd be onboard for a sequel, especially if they smooth over some of the rough patches from this go-around. Monsters vs. Aliens can't exactly figure out what to do when it's not kneedeep in a gigantic action setpiece or a colossal comedy riff, but this homage to schlocky drive-in flicks really is deliriously brilliant when it does manage to connect. Uneven, sure, but still good enough to deserve an emboldened, italicized Recommended.

So, try to figure this one out: Monsters vs. Aliens comes packaged with four 3D glasses, but the movie itself...? 2D only. Oh well.

That's about the only gripe I have with the way Monsters vs. Aliens looks in high-def, though. There's something about its design that isn't quite as eye-popping as Kung Fu Panda, but the presentation is still perfect. The scope image is razor sharp and showcases just how intricate and detailed the texturing work continues to be. Even something as seemingly ordinary as the texture of Susan's skin is so teeming with fine detail that I continually found myself dazzled. It's all exceptionally bright and colorful too, and some of the skies are so beautiful that they look more like an elaborate oil painting rather than a gaggle of 0s and 1s in a sprawling render farm in Palo Alto. Monsters vs. Aliens is remarkably clean and clear, and its AVC encode is given plenty of room to stretch around on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. I couldn't spot any flaws at all, really. There's some very, very faint ringing, but unless you have an enormous projection rig and are perched a couple inches from the screen, the smart money says you won't pick up on it. It's a drag that some of the backdrops early on are so bland-looking -- big, empty fields of grass and the endless grays of the monster prison -- but Monsters vs. Aliens otherwise looks pretty spectacular, and it's definitely what you'd expect out of a megabudgeted computer animated flick on Blu-ray.

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The sound design in Monsters vs. Aliens is phenomenal, and the distinctness and clarity of this 24-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track show off every bit of it. Even from the very first frame, the sound of that quantonium meteor searing through the, um, vacuum of space...the startlingly clear effects in every channel as it plummets to the ground and sends dirt and debris scattering in every direction...it starts off exceptionally well and never lets up from there. Imaging and directionality are first-rate from start to finish, if it's something as understated as a Lunch Cannon blasting platefuls of whatever all the way to fighter jets and alien gizmos whirring around the entire soundscape. There's plenty of deep, punchy bass as well, although an awful lot of scenes don't rattle the room the way I'd expect. The low-end is thick and meaty -- the impact of the quantonium tumbling to the ground, the throaty growl of an oversized Mothra-hamster, and just that overall symphony of destruction -- but it doesn't belt out those extremely low frequencies that really resonate. I guess this is intentional since the stomping of the alien robot rattles all the windows in downtown San Francisco and had pretty much the same effect in my living room, but that's the only scene that packs that extra wallop. Even with as frantic and chaotic as the action can get, though, all of the voice acting is consistently reproduced flawlessly throughout. I could've used a little extra kick to the bass, but other than that...? Perfect.

Monsters vs. Aliens also serves up Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish. Its stack of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, and Spanish.

The movie may be in 2D only, but Monsters vs. Aliens really does have those red-and-green glasses tucked inside for a reason: two of the extras on this Blu-ray disc are served up in 3D.
  • B.O.B.'s Big Break (13 min., HD): This
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    bonus short dials the Wayback Machine a few decades in the rear view mirror to take a peek at Dr. Cockroach celebrating B.O.B.'s birthday by turning that blue blob of Jell-O into a walking, talking, belching bomb. The latest in a neverending parade of escape attempts doesn't quite go according to plan, but...hey! The creepy-slash-amazing new powers that B.O.B. has could be their ticket out... Oh, and a separate 2D version has also been piled onto this Blu-ray disc.

  • Paddle Ball (HD): The concept behind this 3D game is pretty simple -- match a voice description to a character, select his (or her!) icon, and mash 'Enter' -- but the clock ticks down faster and faster as it goes along.
The rest of the extras are 2D only, and yup, they're all in high-def.
  • Audio Commentary: Producer Lisa Stewart grabs directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon to hammer out the commentary track for Monsters vs. Aliens, and it's a blast. The three of 'em are all extremely personable and bounce off each other really well, chatting about the budget determining what kind of hairstyles Susan could have, breezing through a slew of different iterations of a huge stack of scenes and the movie altogether, an extremely well-timed hiccup in the animation, and how the nuances of Three Stoogesque eyepoking can be lost on a Frenchman. It's definitely worth setting aside an hour and a half to give this track a quick listen, and for anyone keeping track at home, the commentary's helpfully subtitled in English, French, and Spanish too.

  • Animator's Corner: When they say "corner", they mean it: this picture-in-picture feature stays in the lower-right hand corner for the entire length of Monsters vs. Aliens, unlike most of these features that keep popping on and off. It's easily the best of the extras on this set, especially for anyone with an interest in the nuts-and-bolts of computer animation. "Animator's Corner" serves up peeks at the actors tackling their voice work, pencil animation tests of B.O.B., facial tests for several characters, storyboards, animatics, different render passes...oh! And lots and lots of interviews. These chats with the talent behind the scenes run through just about everything: every stage of getting an ambitious movie like this off the ground, gradually reshaping characters to best fit their voice actors, the mindset behind the design of the monster prison, the coordination required between so many different departments to bring B.O.B. wobbling to life, recording all of the actors grunting and screaming, its unique virtual camera to crank up the action, the daunting scale of the attack on San Francisco and the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge sequence in particular, and the mix of exaggerated character designs with ridiculously detailed texturing and lighting.

  • Trivia Track: I'm usually not all that keen on trivia tracks, but this one's great, and it serves up so many quick notes about production that it plays really well alongside the audio commentary. A
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    few of 'em worth pointing out...? Ginormica's precise height, what it is, exactly, that Doc Cockroach is scarfing down for lunch, poking fun at how many times Reese Witherspoon says "amazing!", the many different iterations of Gallaxhar, that it would've taken more than four thousand years to render Monsters vs. Aliens on a single computer, and a less-sequel-friendly ending for one character that was chucked out.

  • Deleted Scenes (5 min.; HD): There are three deleted scenes on this disc, kicking off with Monger mounting a siege on the alien's stronghold rather than hanging back like he did in the finished flick. We also get to see the president trying to finger the blame for San Francisco being trashed on the monsters. Both of those scenes play over a storyboard reel. "If You Don't Know" is a quick rant by B.O.B. with picture-in-picture video of Seth Rogen in the recording booth over a set of rough 3D renders. The finished movie is lighter than usual with the pop culture nods, and these scenes make up for that by serving up a Billy Bass cameo and a "Lee-roy Jenkins!" battle cry.

  • Tech of MVA (6 min.; HD): Because I'm a little slow on the draw, it took me a sec to clue in that "MVA" stood for "Monsters vs. Aliens". This featurette really plays more like a six minute commercial for HP and Intel, and a lot of the technical chatter -- how the use of 3D heightens the storytelling, the scale of the flick's visual effects, especially with an amorphous blob like B.O.B. on the bill, and grabbing hold of a virtual camera rather than leaning solely on a few hundred thousand mouse clicks -- is covered elsewhere on this disc too.

  • Modern Monster Movie Making (17 min.; HD): Oh! Here's the real making-of piece. "Modern Monster Movie Making" tackles some of the same ground as "Tech of MVA" without playing so much like a corporate valentine, particularly the challenges and thrills of trotting over into the third dimension. A big chunk of this featurette swirls around the cast and the characters
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    they play, including quite a few peeks at the voice actors in front of the mic. Some of the other highlights are the research that went into bringing a city as iconic as San Francisco to life, reproducing a scaled-down version of 'Frisco so an animator could fumble her way through it like Ginormica would, trying to steer away from action that looked too cartoony, and dropping '50s monsters off in the here and now.

  • Karaoke Music Party (6 min.; HD): Follow the bouncing ball -- okay, it's really just words on a screen -- as Ginormica belts out "I Will Survive", B.O.B. tears into "More than a Woman", and Dr. Cockroach and the Missing Link throw the hammer down with "Born to Be Wild".

  • Dreamworks Video Jukebox (10 min.; HD): Oodles of music videos for other Dreamworks releases, including Shrek, Flushed Away, Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and Bee Movie, have been piled on here too.

  • Top Secret! (mostly HD): Last up are a high-def teaser for How to Train Your Dragon, several snippets from Shrek: The Musical, and plugs for Dreamworks Animation's TV shows, video games, and spinoff DVDs.
Also piled inside are plugs for a few of Dreamworks Animation's projects for NBC and Nickelodeon along with a sheet of Chuck E. Cheese coupons.

The Final Word
I've gotta admit that my expectations were kind of stratospheric coming off something as brilliant as Kung Fu Panda and that first amazing teaser. I definitely dug Monsters vs. Aliens -- some truly spectacular action, a terrific sense of humor, and oodles of nods to some of my favorite sci-fi flicks -- but it's a lot more uneven than I waltzed in expecting. It's almost as if a roomful of writers spent months dreaming up a bunch of devastatingly clever, howlingly funny scenes, and with a deadline bearing down, they just threw together whatever sprang to mind to connect 'em all at the last minute. When Monsters vs. Aliens is at its best, it's amazing, but when it's not, it's...meh. I absolutely like the movie, and Dreamworks can count on my ten bucks once the inevitable sequel rolls around, but it's not the sort of end-to-end, cacklingly ingenious sci-fi-action-comedy-cartoon I'd crossed my fingers hoping to see. Still, though...? Recommended.
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