A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG, 85 mins.
Staring the voices of:
Steve Buscemi / Maggie Gyllenhaal / Jon Heder / Kevin James / Jason Lee / Mittchel Musso / Spencer Locke / Sam Lerner
Directed by Gil Kenan / Written by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler
MONSTER HOUSE seems to have its sensibilities more in tune with slasher films and teen comedies than it does your average family film. If anything, this just may be one of the most atypical computer animated films that I certainly can recall. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that its story revolves around houses that come to life to eat people with glee and young characters engaging in hilarious dialogue about various parts of the human anatomy.
There is one exchange between two pre-pubescent kids that is a real howler. While the two of them are in the demented - and very much alive - home, she looks up at a chandelier while it is moving and screaming. “There, that must be its uvula,” she spouts out as she sees the chandelier vibrate. Her ignorant male companion responds, “Oh…so this is a girl’s house?”
MONSTER HOUSE is very wisely rated PG for “"scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor, and brief language.” That, however, should not in any way shape or form be some sort of damaging demerit when looking at the film’s quality. This is not one of those squeaky clean, sanitized Disney animated clones that would appeal to those under five and no one else. In the annals of great family entertainments the best films of the genre appeal to everyone in the audience, both young and old alike. MONSTER HOUSE, on this very level, is a fantastic achievement.
It’s an animated film with eye-popping visuals and a fantastic aesthetic eye, so both young tykes and adults can appreciate it. The youthful characters are plucky, witty (well, most of them) and have a nice chemistry and charisma to garner our buy-in. The film’s premise – a dark and dilapidated house in the neighborhood comes to life and devours all trespassers – may not seem like the most noble-minded of stories to tell youngsters, nor is the film’s snappy and acerbic dialogue (some of which only equally sharp witted adults will appreciate).
Yet, this is one of the few animated films – if not live action films – that treats its young characters and story with respect. They are real, breathing personas. The pre-teens are all smartasses and sarcastic, the older teens think that they are a million miles removed from their parents in terms of intelligence, and the adults seem kind of innocently clueless about their young children. All in all, MONSTER HOUSE does a good job typifying American youth.
Then there is the film’s story, which at a glance does look like it owes more to the work of Wes Craven than it does Walt Disney. That, in a way, is a most welcome relief. MONSTER HOUSE is in the tradition of sublimely spooky and free-spirited teen films, like THE GOONIES, where a group of intrepid and brave young souls become a ragtag group of Nancy Drews in the midst of otherworldly and dangerous obstacles. MONSTER HOUSE is definitely macabre, but not in a mean-spirited way. There is a carefree innocence and vitality to the story, much like in THE GOONIES, a film that used wisely placed comic relief to help blunt the scares. It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg co-executive produced MONSTER HOUSE (he also did so on GOONIES), not to mention that Robert Zemeckis helped fill out executive producer duties (he has also done darkly farcical work, as present in his DEATH BECOMES HER).
More importantly, Zemeckis’ fingerprints feel very much on MONSTER HOUSE from a technical standpoint. The film used the very same motion capture technology (dubbed performance capture) that Zemeckis utilized in his watershed CG animated film, THE POLAR EXPRESS. Instead of employing traditional hand drawn animation, first time 30-year-old director Gil Kenan used Zemeckis' POLAR EXPRESS techniques as a catalyst to tell is own computer rendered tale. Kenan hired actors to not only voice the characters, but to also enact everything that appears in the film in front of cameras connected to a computer. All of the actors were covered with specialized motion capture markers which – when being feed into the computer – recreated their physical performances with 3D models. The animators could then replicate these models and place over top of them the digital characters themselves.
The effect is kind of marvelous. The characters in MONSTER HOUSE, as in THE POLAR EXPRESS, have such a graceful and smooth fluidity, as do their expressions. Also, since the motion capture has been replicated in the computer, this gives the director free reign to use virtual cinematography to create his shots and camera work. Whereas in other standard 2D and CG animated films compositions are far too often made up of stable and static shots, MONSTER HOUSE has the look and feel of a film that has been directed by someone on set. It is the motion capture animation and overall aesthetic shine that makes this type of animation the way to do these types of films. The effect is visually luxurious and gorgeous to look at.
MONSTER HOUSE clearly benefits from these stylistic techniques. Kenan originally wanted to tell the story in live action form. In hindsight, that choice might have made the film perhaps a bit too scary for young children. Using motion capture animation has freed up his vision and given it the right blend of cartoony whimsicality and a dark, forbidden atmosphere than could not have otherwise been accomplished.
The film is scary, yes, but just scary enough to thrill all audience members and not too much to put young ones in a never-ending tailspin of bedtime nightmares. The film is also surprisingly droll and satiric. Characters say things that most young animated ones rarely do. The film has two real zingers, like when one child asks the other where his parents are. “Dad is at work at the pharmacy and mom is at the movies with her personal trainer," he responds. Another moment has one of the children thinking he has inadvertently killed his neighbour. “I’ve just killed a man,” he screams. His buddy retorts, “Naw…when it’s an accident, it’s called manslaughter.”
MONSTER HOUSE sets itself up rather modestly. It involves three young children – DJ (Mitchell Musso), Chowder (the hilarious Sam Lerner) and the plucky Jenny (Spencer Locke) who all try to get rid of a house on the block that they believe – deep down – to be haunted and possessed. Why do they think that house is dammed? Well, maybe because it looks like a monster. It’s two second level windows glow like eyes, its front door opens up like a mouth and its welcome mat comes spewing out like a ravenous tongue. The house has a nasty habit of eating people when no one - other than the kids, of course – are looking. It's quite curious that no one else on the block seems to notice this odd home, but I digress. Oh, and yes, the house does have a uvula.
To makes matters even worse, it will soon be Halloween, which means that hundreds of young, costumed clad innocents will try to ring the evil house on the yearly night of trick or treat. Obviously, the kids know that this will mean that the house will indeed feast on fresh, young meat, so they adopt an ingenious plan to get rid of the house once and for all. They try to enlist in the services of two local bumbling police officers (the very funny Kevin James and Nick Cannon), but it soon becomes clear that no one believes their crazy story.
MONSTER HOUSE is a lot smarter than films typical of this genre. Full credit has to go to director Kenan and the screenwriting team for really fleshing out the personalities and making them people to root for and invest in. The chemistry between the three children in particular is nicely realized. The two young boys, predictably, try to woe for the attention of the pretty Jenny. She, of course, realizes that she is getting in-between the two lustful boys, which puts her in the respectable level of team leader.
The boys both are on the verge of puberty, and the script gives them plenty of funny moments to help remind the audience of this fact. Fred Willard, who plays DJ’s dad, has virtuoso bit with his son about the bird’s and the bees. To further round off the decent cast is Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jason Lee, the latter who plays Gyllenhaal’s doped up slacker boyfriend that only wants to get in her pants. Perhaps the funniest character in the whole film is that performed by NAPOLEON DYNAMITE himself, Jon Heder, playing – you guessed it – an uber-dork. He is an older teen that plays video games – correction – a lot of video games, so much so that he, at one time, wore an adult diaper just so he could not have his game interrupted. Now that’s nerdy dedication.
The film’s visual look is an odd, yet highly effective, hybrid. It was done with motion capture, but the characters are nowhere near the realistic visages that populated THE POLAR EXPRESS. Kenan here went for people that looked more doll-like and the choice helps to counterbalance the film’s somber and decrepit tone and mood. The characters look unrealistic, but their movements don’t and the amount of personality that is infused in them is quite remarkable. The house itself is a gloriously wicked design. When things get really wretched, the house itself grows arms and kind of hobbles itself around looking to munch down on its next victim. I loved the way the animators also embedded the house with personality, albeit drastically more sinister. It becomes the film’s other great character.
MONSTER HOUSE is a small little gem. It takes the same performance capture CG technology that made THE POLAR EXPRESS work so consummately and creates its own wacky and dreary animated scarefest. The film is a wonderful marriage of new, 21st Century technology and old school cinematic storytelling. For those reasons, MONSTER HOUSE emerges as a really funny, exciting, tense, and entertaining haunted house yarn. The visuals are wonderfully orchestrated, the characters are well realized, the dialogue is fast, frantic, and filled to the brim with sharp wit, and the mood feels more akin to the gothic and kooky sensibilities of Tim Burton. MONSTER HOUSE takes groundbreaking technology and does not let it drown out the other more noteworthy aspects of movie making, like characters and story. What the film does best is to take modern advances in computer graphics and uses them in creative ways to tell a fantastical story with a subtle layer of humanity underneath it all. Beyond that, MONSTER HOUSE thankfully appeases both adults and children. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of it is just how mature of a family film it is.