In hopes of bringing some life into the eyes of zombies, Gil Kenan’s Monster House one-ups Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express with its use of motion-capture animation. Even though it’s gotten a lot better with Kenan’s film, it still is too distracting to be truly enjoyable.
Monster House, a film that is most likely too scary for kids eight and younger, is a tightly written (Rob Schrab, Dan Harmon and Pamela Pettler) Halloween romp involving a haunted house and some neighbor kids hatching a plan to take it down.
Those kids are the skinny, smart DJ (Mitchel Musto), the pudgy, funny Chowder (Sam Lerner) and the over-achiever pretty girl Jenny (Spencer Locke). DJ is left home for Halloween by his parents and babysat by a goth chick named Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Naturally, he is obsessed with the haunted house across the street that swallows up kids’ toys and seems to be alive with evil.
Well, maybe evil is a bit strong. There’s something alive in there but it’s not apparent what it is at first. There’s an old man who lives there, Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who torments any child who steps foot on his lawn or near his house. When DJ confronts Nebbercracker the old man seems to die from a heart attack. But what really happened to him?
Meanwhile, with Nebbercracker gone, the house seems to be possessed by its mean old self. It doesn’t take Jenny, DJ and Chowder long to figure out that the house isn’t just a house but a living, breathing entity with organs, a temper and a soul. Not to mention a uvula.
Monster House sounds better than it is. Even with the wonder and achievement of the animation process utilized here, there is something about it that seems too labored, too exact. Yes, it’s impressive, but is it enough to make the movie worthwhile? Does the movie stand on its own as a good film regardless? Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
What Kenan has done here is shown how talented and adept he is at motion-capture. He is a good visual director and some of what’s done in Monster House is breathtaking, but his storytelling chip seems to be missing. For instance, he focuses entirely on the effects in the latter part of the film without stopping to pay attention to what might really be going on around the house on a suburban street on the most active night of the year. Where are all the kids? Where are the helicopters and the media vans?
Even your most basic Nick cartoon knows how to create a world that is totally imaginary yet completely believable. As wild and imaginative as Monster House is, in the end, when you peel back the shiny wrapping, it’s a simple story and a bit of a cliché.
Funnily enough, the best thing about Monster House isn’t even the house, and it certainly isn’t the special effects. It’s the funny dialogue and relationships between the characters and that would be there with or without motion-capture.
The dialogue about puberty is particularly funny, especially since it’s the subject least often broached in kids’ films. There is an obvious attempt here to make the film appeal across all genders, races and ages. There should be something for everybody, as is so often the case with animated films these days.
Will Monster House make money? It’s hard to tell. Some parents might be dealing with whimpering children who are too scared to look at the screen (if you thought Curse of the Were-Rabbit was a fright fest, you ought to skip this film) while others might not be used to the strange type of animation that does what it can to look as close as possible to real people. Doesn’t that always make you wonder, if they want them to look like real people so much why not just use real people?
On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to see it in 3-D, it will have been worth all of the trouble.