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Monsters vs. Aliens
Look out Pixar, there are new Monsters in town.
Monsters vs. Aliens
A Scene from "Monsters vs. Aliens."
OPENING WEEKEND: $45,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $155,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

December 8th, 2008: When a meteorite from outer space hits a young girl and turns her into a giant monster, she is taken to a secret government compound where she meets a ragtag group of monsters also rounded up over the years.

What to Expect: The war for animation domination wages hot and fiery in Hollywood. Everyone wants to be The Studio for animation, although who constitutes "everyone" changes. It used to be Disney vs. Everyone Else, with Everyone Else inevitably coming in a distant second, eating Disney's dust. Those days are long gone, and now, the two gorillas on the playground are Pixar and Dreamworks. Until recently, it seemed like Pixar had Dreamworks down on the mats and was pounding it severely about the head and shoulders, but Dreamworks is showing signs of rallying.

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Ever since it burst upon the animation scene with "Toy Story," Pixar Animation Studios has enjoyed a string of critical, popular and financial successes unprecedented in Hollywood history. They have not released a single film that has not made money, and even their least successful film, "A Bug's Life," grossed over $160 million. Since then, every release has made over $200 million. Dreamworks' record is more uneven; their highs are higher ("Shrek 2" made over $400 million) and their lows are lower ("Flushed Away" made a paltry $64 million). Yet it must be said that Dreamworks' films lack the cache and reputation for quality that Pixar's have enjoyed. While Dreamworks has had some individual victories at the box office, overall their films seem to lack something, some magical quality of creative pixie dust that makes Pixar's films such reliable commodities. Where Dreamworks' films have cleverness and guffaws, Pixar's have heart.

The tide may be turning, however. Dreamworks is rallying, and there's some sign that Pixar may be feeling the pinch of competition. Since their all-time domestic highest grossing film, "Finding Nemo" ($339 million) each of Pixar's last three films has seen decreases at the box office, from "The Incredibles" ($261 million) to "Cars" ($244 million) to "Ratatouille" ($206 million). While the critical adulation is undimmed (although "Cars" received a slightly less orgiastic reception than most), Pixar's films haven't been finding the audiences as much as they once did. "Wall-E" represented a slight uptick ($223 million), but its performance was very nearly matched by this spring's Dreamworks blockbuster "Kung Fu Panda" ($215 million). With big box-office performers like "Madagascar" and the "Shrek" films under its belt, Dreamworks' days as the "Sinbad" bottom-feeders of the feature-length animation world are a distant memory. There's also the nebulous sense of a sea change occurring. While hardly anyone disputed the creative and critical triumph that "Wall-E" represented, there's a certain sense of inevitability about it. Of course it was fantastic, it was Pixar! What do we expect? When you're on top of your game, performing to expectations doesn't exactly set tongues a-wagging. But there was a sense of excitement about "Kung Fu Panda's" success, a pleased aura of surprise at the film's cleverness and appeal.

We might be seeing this trend continue as we look ahead to each studio's upcoming releases. Pixar's next film is "Up," about which little is known, and for which the studio had only released a short, cryptic trailer. No one seems terribly excited about it, and no one has a real clear idea of what it's about. On the other hand, we have "Monsters vs. Aliens," the new Dreamworks film which seems tailor-made to appeal to a broad audience and incorporate as many pop culture in-jokes as possible, a strategy that certainly worked for the Shrek films.

The new film is the story of a young woman who is struck by a mysterious meteorite and immediately shoots up to nearly fifty feet tall. She is taken away by the government, where she discovers that there are other "monsters" including the genius insect-headed scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) and B.O.B., a slimy amorphous creature (Seth Rogen), who are kept sequestered...that is, until an alien robot comes to earth and they are needed to fight it. Early clips have revealed that the alien landing scene riffs off "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Independence Day," and another still reveals a briefing room that cannot help but call to mind the War Room from "Dr. Strangelove." The style of the film is reminiscent of old 1950s sci-fi B-movies, and the writing is full of referential dialogue.

The film's directors, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, are Dreamworks vets, having directed "Shark Tale" and "Shrek 2," respectively. They've amassed quite a roster of voice talent, including "Panda" vet Seth Rogen and no less a pop culture icon than satirist Stephen Colbert as, of course, President of the United States. Reese Witherspoon is new to Dreamworks but not to voice acting, having done several episodes of "King of the Hill" and provided a voice for the animated feature "Trumpet of the Swan." Laurie is in much the same spot, a veteran of voice acting but a new addition to the Dreamworks stable of favorites. With such a group, which also includes comedy royalty such as Paul Rudd, Rainn Wilson, Wil Arnett, and the famously velvet-voiced Kiefer Sutherland (as a warhawk general, of course), they aren't sparing any expense for voice talent. But as I've often said in the past, voice talent is not the draw to animated films that studios seem to think it is, and top actors aren't necessarily great voice actors. The ones that are good at it tend to be comedians, and Dreamworks seems to have cottoned on to this fact of life...every voice actor they've cast is a good comic actor, even Witherspoon.

Another point of excitement for the team making "Monsters vs. Aliens" is that it represents a technological step forward in computer-generated animation. This is the first film to be rendered directly into 3-D, instead of having the 3-D applied at the end of the process. Which means...yeah, I have no idea what that means. But I'm assured that it will improve the look of the film and make its 3-D appearance even more realistic. By the time of the film's release, as many as half of the theaters carrying the film will be equipped to show the film in 3-D. Unfortunately, you may end up paying $5 extra dollars at the door if Dreamworks gets their way.

As is becoming a somewhat tiresome refrain for this year, this film has had its release date messed around with. Originally slated to open in May. Unfortunately this would have put it up against James Cameron's long-time-coming "Avatar," and it was decided that this wasn't the best business decision ever, so the release date was moved back a week, and finally moved again several months back to March. Now, call me cynical, but I'm not convinced that "Avatar" represents such a huge box-office behemoth that other films, even other animated films, ought to be running from it in terror, so I'm forced to wonder if this retreat represents a lack of confidence on the part of Dreamworks in this particular film. That's not the only indication of studio apathy...the merchandising rights to "Monsters vs. Aliens" has been granted to ToyQuest, a small untested firm without experience handling this large of a release, with carte blanche to do whatever they like with the film's characters. Confidence in this company, or fear of box office failure and hopes of making up the money in merchandising? Hard to say.

Here's something else to possibly raise concern: the film has no credited authors. To me, that screams "written by committee," which is no way to write anything. If the film is the work of so many authors that you can't credit anyone, or worse yet, that no one will take responsibility for the film, then that might be cause for concern.

As for me, I'm...guardedly optimistic. If the trailer is an indication of the level the film is aimed at, then it's definitely a little more lowbrow and mainstream than Pixar films tend to be. I wasn't blown away, but neither was I put off. However, I have a feeling the film could find a wide audience, as "Panda" did, and Dreamworks can continue its upward trend and keep giving Pixar something to worry about.

In Conclusion: Alien invasions, giant robots, B-movie monsters, celebrity voices...but is it any good? Will it entertain and uplift, or just give you a few laughs? There's some indication of hesitance on the studio's part, but Dreamworks Animation is on a roll. All this studio vs. studio hand-wringing won't matter much to the public, about 95% of whom couldn't even tell you which animated features are made by Pixar and which are made by Dreamworks. All they'll care about is if the movie is fun, and it will probably be fun.

Similar Titles: Shrek, Kung Fu Panda
March 27th, 2009 (wide)
September 29th, 2009 (DVD)


Conrad Vernon, Rob Letterman

Reese Witherspoon, Rainn Wilson, Hugh Laurie, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Stephen Colbert, Paull Rudd

Total: 50 vote(s).

Animation, Comedy

Click here to view site

Rated PG for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language.

94 min





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