Just the other day, I was bemoaning the state of the current summer movie season to a friend. As always, there has been a mixture of disappointing films and good films. I liked Cars and X-Men: The Last Stand a lot, and found some enjoyment in The Break-Up, The Devil Wears Prada, A Prairie Home Companion and Superman Returns. What I hadn’t seen, however, was a great movie. By the end of July 2005, we’d already seen Star Wars Episode III and Batman Begins - superb examples of high-quality, warm-weather entertainment. Quite frankly, I was wondering whether Summer 2006 was going to provide me with a genuine 4-star, this-is-what-I-love-about-movies experience.
And then I saw Monster House.
I was always the kid who loved creature features and wanted to go on the haunted house ride at the amusement park, so this computer-animated spook show was right up my alley. Set in a fictional suburban town, the film follows pre-adolescent DJ. He feels like he’s growing up, but best pal Chowder still wears a superhero cape around his neck and wants to go trick-or-treating. When DJ’s parents go to a dentists’ convention for a few days, he’s left in the care of sarcastic babysitter Zee (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal), who would rather fool around with boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) than watch the kid.
This allows DJ and Chowder plenty of time to observe the spooky house across the street. Cranky old Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) lives there, and whenever some hapless kid sets foot on his lawn, the old coot comes out screaming. He also has a collection of toys he has commandeered, including Chowder’s basketball. Something about the decrepit house itself seems strange – DJ and Chowder believe it is alive. When Nebbercracker keels over on the front lawn, the boys investigate, nearly getting “eaten” by the house. Later on, a candy-selling prep school student named Jenny innocently rings the doorbell; the house tries to consume her too. DJ and Chowder come to the rescue.
Realizing that they have to somehow stop the house, the kids turn to the local cops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) who don’t believe their stories. Next they get advice from a local video game whiz named “Skull” Skulinski (Jon Heder) who encourages them to enter the house and extinguish its life force.
There is an incredible amount of creativity in the way the house is portrayed as a living entity. The upstairs windows are eyes. The front door is a mouth, and the entryway carpet is a tongue. The crooked trees in the yard function as arms. Inside, the basement is like the stomach, housing those stray toys and the remains of anyone who gets sucked in. It’s great stuff, although it must be noted that Monster House is too intense for very young children. (I’d recommend it for ages 9 and over).
When I reviewed Over the Hedge back in May, I said that a lot of computer-animated movies were starting to look the same to me. So many of them these days seem centered around animals. (In addition to recent hits like Madagascar, The Wild, Chicken Little, Ice Age 2 and Over the Hedge, the coming months will also bring us The Ant Bully, Barnyard and Open Season.) The problem is obvious to me: animated filmmakers are often choosing the subject first, then trying to craft a story around it.
Monster House, in comparison, obviously began life as a story. It’s a very well constructed “Goosebumps”-style tale that doesn’t need furry animals or silly slapstick or blatant pop culture jokes to work. The movie plays on common childhood fears – the creepy house down the street, the mean old man who lives there, etc. It also taps into that childhood sense of wonder and imagination where a spooky house can be alive in some horrific way.
Even better, Monster House develops the story far beyond just a surface level. In the last half hour, we get the backstory of Mr. Nebbercracker, learning why his house is possessed and what possesses it. The movie deals with themes uncommon to animated films: sorrow, loss, regret. In other hands, I think Monster House might have been a fast-paced but ultimately empty joyride. Under the direction of Gil Kenan (and executive producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg), the movie has the courage to be an enormously satisfying piece of family entertainment, but also a fully realized look at adult dilemmas as seen from the eyes of a child.
The computer animation is superb, using the same “motion capture” technique utilized for The Polar Express. Basically, the characters are based on the movements and facial expressions of real actors. My favorite character is Chowder, who is one of the most original animated movie characters of recent years. I actually kind of forgot that he was animated, so realistically does he seem like a goofy kid with an overactive imagination. Monster House does so many things well, but maybe the best is the manner in which it authentically portrays that awkward age between childhood and adolescence. It’s a time when innocence is often shattered by reality, but dreams and fantasies still seem like they could still come true. Elliott from E.T. lived in this zone. So do the kids in Monster House, which is one of the best, most complete animated movies I have ever seen.
( out of four)
Monster House is rated PG for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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