Monster House

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/25/06 20:00:04

"Makes parents nervous in a good way."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Often, when a trip to the movies is brought on by saying "let's see some cool technology", that's about what we wind up seeing - a nifty tech demo and not much else. I love the gee-whiz stuff as much as the next guy, but what "Monster House"] had wasn't quite new - I'd seen the performance-capture on "The Polar Express" and the digital 3-D projection on "Chicken Little". It would take a little more to impress me, but fortunately, "Monster House" has a little more up its sleeve.

What it's got is a kid named D.J. obsessively chronicling the things that disappear onto the lawn across the street, which his neighbor Mr. Nebbercracker never returns. After Nebbercracker goes down with a heart attack, D.J. and his friend Chowder decide he must be haunting it - the house itself seems to be attacking anything that steps on the lawn, including Jenny, a cute red-headed girl going door-to-door for a school fundraiser who becomes their partner in crime.

One thing I appreciated while watching Monster House is that it's not driven by celebrity voices - the kids are all unknowns, at least to me (they could be huge to the Nickelodeon set), and the only character voice I recognized right off was Fred Willard as D.J.'s father (in fact, I was pretty sure that D.J.'s father was played by Armin Shimmerman rather than Steve Buscemi). It's one of the least-distracting voice casts I've seen from a major American animated movie in a while; only a couple of supporting characters (a pair of police officers voiced by Kevin James and Nick Cannon) really seem to be trying to sound funny on top of doing and saying funny things; even Jon Heder manages not to sound exaggerated. I think part of the reason for this is that it's very easy to make adolescents' voices sound phony, and the movie absolutely can't afford us to look down on D.J., Jenny, and Chowder.

Visually, Gil Kenan and company manage to use "performance capture" a lot better than Robert Zemeckis did with The Polar Express. The characters' movements generally seem very natural and they've got expressive faces; they feel a lot more like people interacting with an environment than objects captured and put together. Kenan seems to use his captured data more as a starting point than Zemeckis did, and seems to feel more free to go with stylized character even if it means losing a bit of detail, or exaggerate a character's motions a little, rather than try to slavishly recreate human beings only to have small differences set the observer's brain off. It's a good thing he goes this route, because otherwise the house of the title wouldn't fit in at all - it's a monster and a parody of humanity, and the human characters being a little off-center visually allows it to co-exist with them.

At times the world seems a little too cohesive. Parts of the beginning struck me as more muted than they would be in live action, and not in a way that seemed like deliberate de-emphasis. It might just be that Monster House fits into several categories that I'm used to hitting things loudly - it's animated, intended for a family audience, and "scary" - and what would be admirable restraint for any one of them seems too subdued for the combination. Things start looking up - way up when the fantastic elements start taking center stage. Once the movie's allowed to stop playing coy, and let the house be this thing not bound by the normal guidelines of structural engineering, we've got a reason to have it come out and play, and suddenly all the tricks the filmmakers have up their sleeves - the virtual cameras, the 3-D, the using the same techniques to create characters and effects - become really useful. In most movies, the film suddenly looks a bit different when things get wild; here it's a seamless transition.

And things do get wild. I've heard parents complain that the movie is too intense for kids and should have been rated PG-13, but I don't know that I agree (which is admittedly an easy position to take if I'm not going to have with kids having nightmares). PG does mean parental guidance is suggested, so know your kid, and remember that when you were a kid, you probably liked being scared, at least a little. There are some intense scenes, including at least one on-screen death, but I think the average ten-year-old can handle it.

And it's not just potentially-scary, but fun. The action gives every sign of a very successful storyboarding stage, and Kenan does nice things with the camera. There are a couple of moments where the thought of "yes, I am glad I paid the extra two bucks for 3-D" was so pervasive among the audience you could practically hear it, and Kenan makes the reason for the house to be haunted and angry that writers Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler give him surprisingly affecting. The beginning may be by numbers, and maybe even a third act as fun as this one may lose its luster once the gee-whiz factor isn't so high, but the film does have the kind of emotional logic that a good ghost story needs. This movie may actually wind up standing up to the test of time.

It's got a better chance than many family movies, at least. Who knows, maybe in a generation, the ten-year-old who sees this movie today will be shocked that his or her parents let them see it - but glad they did.

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