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At the Academy Awards earlier this year, Jack Black explained how he makes the most of the paychecks he earns for his frequent work in DreamWorks' animated movies like Kung Fu Panda and Shark Tale. "Each year I do one DreamWorks project," he quipped, "then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar."
The crowd laughed nervously, apparently not sure whether it was in good taste to acknowledge the truth in Black's joke: When it comes to quality animation, DreamWorks, the company responsible for Shrek, Madagascar, and Bee Movie, doesn't hold a candle to Pixar, the company responsible for Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. DreamWorks' latest effort, Monsters vs. Aliens, goes a long way to explaining why.
The company was founded by entertainment industry titans Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, and from the outset it has had the cash and cachet to pull out every stop with every movie it releases. Starting with Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone voicing Antz in 1998 to Ben Stiller and Sacha Baron Cohen bringing jungle animals to life in last year's Madagascar 2, its computer-animated projects feature the hippest Hollywood talent. Monsters vs. Aliens is no different. It's harder to get more flavor-of-the-moment than Reese Witherspoon, Steven Colbert, Seth Rogen, and Rainn Wilson of The Office.
Pixar uses big-name talent too, but goes with less-known (or at least less-cool) actors when it will mean a better result. How many people can identify John Ratzenberger, whose voice has been heard in every Pixar movie, off the top of their head? (Hint: He played Cliff on the '80s sitcom Cheers). In fact, WALL•E, this year's animated feature winner at the Academy Awards, didn't feature any A-list names, and Ratatouille's biggest star was Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond.
If DreamWorks likes to go big with its talent, it goes equally big with its scripts. In direct opposition to the fresh, simple narratives Pixar typically champions, DreamWorks plots tend to be complicated extravaganzas of pop-culture references. Its favorite story device is tweaking an already well-worn genre to give it kid appeal, as Shrek did with fairy tales and Kung Fu Panda did with martial arts films.
Monsters follows this protocol with a story about Susan (Witherspoon), a woman whose run-in with a meteor leaves her skyscraper-tall. She's quickly captured by the government and enlisted in a secret, elite team of monsters including the gelatinous blue B.O.B. (Rogen) and Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) to defeat an alien invader (Wilson).
The idea to call to mind cult horrors like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, and Creature from the Black Lagoon may be entertaining for industry insiders, but unless you're a fan of such films, the nudge-nudge recycling gets boring (though, to be fair, a bit of borrowing from Close Encounters of the Third Kind will have parents rolling). There's a sense that the screenwriters were working so hard to be clever, they forgot to include an engaging story. There's no heart here, the ingredient that makes Pixar pics so beloved to both children and parents.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two companies is how family-friendly their family entertainment really is. DreamWorks seemingly scours their scripts looking for opportunities to insert jokes that would be ashamed to raise their potty-humor heads in a Pixar film. Here, we get the president of the United States (Colbert) defecating in his pants; a scanner identifying a man's bare, tattooed behind for security clearance; and an alien blurting out an obvious euphemism for the f-word. Sure, the kids laugh, but their amusement is in no small part due to the characters on screen getting away with behavior that parents usually frown on.
Pixar, on the other hand, usually mines their humor from sources like whimsical visuals and character interaction that are much harder to land, but much more satisfying when they do. Of course, none of this will stop Monsters vs. Aliens from making piles of money, but as Jack Black pointed out, the joke will still be on DreamWorks.