Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space premieres tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. EDT.

Fully a sixth of the running time on the Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space screener DVD is devoted to the closing credits, which is both a testament to the cinematic quality of the computer animation and just how damn busy the whole thing feels. Halloween specials are traditionally a little busy. They usually attempt to create a safe, scary zone for the kids, offering up a story that’s a little terrifying but not so terrifying that anyone would be actually scared by it. The exception, of course, is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which has a rather leisurely story (though it’s busy by Peanuts special standards) and mostly aims to replicate the feeling of being a little kid at Halloween.

While Halloween is the holiday with the second most specials, I’d wager (I didn’t do a Wikipedia count or anything, but how many Thanksgiving specials can YOU think of?), surprisingly few of those specials have had much, if any, staying power. Everything from the Garfield special to Halloween is Grinch Night has mostly disappeared from the airwaves, often turning up on an obscure cable channel but rarely making it to the big five networks. So, yeah, there’s a void out there beside Great Pumpkin for solid, kinda scary kid fun.

I’m not sure it’ll be Mutant Pumpkins, though. While the special, like the film that inspired it, offers up some mild fun, like most other Dreamworks Animation products, it feels decidedly of its time, which means that it’s quite a bit of fun the first time you see it but offers diminishing returns every other time you see it. While the story mostly eschews the haphazard pop culture referencing of a lot of other Dreamworks Animation productions – there are a few, but many are actually quite clever – in favor of the tone of a ‘50s sci-fi/horror mash-up, it feels like a sequel to the film itself condensed down into 30 minutes, to the point where every other moment on screen is depicting some new plot point. There’s some hoo-hah about the “true spirit of Halloween,” but that’s mostly cast aside in favor of big, giant action sequences.

The best thing about Mutant Pumpkins, then, is how it LOOKS. It does, legitimately, look like something that was cooked up for the big screen. The colors are warmly autumnal and evoke the feeling of going out trick or treating on a particularly sparking Halloween night, while the computer animation is about the best you’re going to see, on a technical level, on a TV screen. It’s honestly worth watching once just to see how nice it looks. (And I’m assuming it’ll look even better in HD, as most computer animation does.) Even if the story’s a little cluttered, the fact that it’s worth looking at it is enough to keep viewers invested. It also helps that the all-star voice cast from the film steps in to help out on this one, as Seth Rogen and Reese Witherspoon are the sorts of things most other Halloween specials can’t boast. The voices are all pretty well-cast, particularly for the sort of all-star animated project this is. Instead of just tossing a bunch of big names at the problem, the special (and the movie that precedes it) has done a good job of matching big names to characters they might play were this a terrible live-action special.

The story of Mutant Pumpkins, as it were, involves the monsters getting excited for Halloween (and how many specials have been predicated on the idea that monsters really like Halloween?) and getting ready for a big party. However, the alien menace lurks around every corner, and aliens have caused some pumpkins to mutate (hence the title), so they’re now attacking any humans who have picked up one of them to display as a Jack-o-lantern. Will the monsters be able to stop the pumpkins in time? Will Ginormica’s parents’ Halloween party be disrupted by the pumpkin menace? And will slimy BOB ever learn how to trick or treat and/or the true purpose of Halloween?

All of these questions end up answered exactly how you expect them to be (again, scary, but not too scary), and while the special makes pretty good use of Halloween iconography – the mutant Jack-o-lanterns are nicely designed, and there’s lots and lots of candy scarfing – it never finds any emotional core that might make it work as an all-time classic. It’s just a story where plot point after plot point is ruthlessly hit, the story driving relentlessly forward and sacrificing any sort of character development along with it. There’s a bit of a story about how the relationship between Ginormica and her parents is developing now that she’s, y’know, a giant woman, but it mostly seems like an afterthought.

And that’s not a bad thing, really. Mutant Pumpkins really, really just wants to show us the heroes of the film doing battle with alien pumpkin things, and on that score, it succeeds. The final battle is quickly paced, but every moment of it hits its mark. There are some clever gags here – like the big-eyed Dr. Cockroach turning up as E.T. in a blink and you’ll miss it sight gag – and there are some nice moments of character-based humor – like BOB being unable to say trick or treat to a friendly old woman – but the overall impression is that of a story that is just too busy by far. This is disappointing, since the last Dreamworks holiday special – Shrek the Halls – wasn’t an all-time great but was better than the latter two Shrek films and a nice, solid double in holiday special craft. Mutant Pumpkins is a lot of fun to look at, but it’s not going to be the next, great Halloween special to last and last. And that’s too bad because Halloween could use another good show, if only to reorient the holiday towards the people it’s ostensibly for.

Stray observations:

  • I was looking through a list of Halloween specials and realizing how many I’ve seen, though I have absolutely no idea how I’ve seen most of them. So, quick: What are your favorite long-gone Halloween specials?
  • And, hell, while we’re at it, what’s your favorite General Mills monster cereal?

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