A Reel View: Monster House

A Reel View
Monster House

Monster House is, to the best of my knowledge, the first animated haunted house movie, and quite possibly the first family film to recall, at various times, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Amityville Horror. (Parents, don't worry--the references are benign.) It's part story and part spectacle, with the two halves being nicely balanced to offer something for just about everyone. The film pays enough attention to character development for us to care about the protagonists (although it uses stereotypes as a short cut), and there's a substantial amount of humor. While Monster House is in no way groundbreaking, it's an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes, and is suitable for all but the youngest children, for whom some of the scarier sequences may be too intense.
The premise is simple enough, although some wrinkles are introduced along the way. Basically, the movie is about the efforts of three kids--DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso), Chowder (Sam Lerner), and Jenny (Spencer Locke)--to rid the neighborhood of a possessed house that sits across the street from DJ's home. This house has a bad habit of "eating" anyone who ventures onto its property. The door opens, a carpet tongue rolls out, and the widows stare balefully at the offending party who is about to become dinner. To add urgency to the situation, it's Halloween and dozens of trick-or-treaters will be approaching the door in costumes, expecting to be given treats, not to become them.
There's enough action and mildly scary stuff to keep restless viewers involved, but the thing I appreciated most was the way in which the three friends interact. Their dialogue rings true. The two boys, both on the verge of puberty, do silly things to impress Jenny. She recognizes what's happening and uses it to her advantage. Most movies, regardless of whether they're live-action or animated, aren't this perceptive. It's a credit to first-time director Gil Kenan and his screenwriters that they invest the time and effort to get this right.
The filmmakers were smart in the way they cast the voices. The three lead characters are played by relative newcomers, while "familiar" voices fill supporting roles. Steve Buscemi is Nebbercracker, the cranky old man living in the deranged house. Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard play DJ's parents. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Elizabeth, the baby-sitter, and Jason Lee is her gnarly boyfriend. Jon Heder gets into the action as the best video game player on the face of the earth--a guy who will wear an adult diaper so he doesn't have to interrupt his time at the console with bathroom breaks. By using this approach, the filmmakers can utilize recognizable talent while giving us fresh voices for the leads, thereby not generating preconceptions. (Would we view Jenny the same if, for example, she was portrayed by Dakota Fanning?)
Visually, it cannot be argued that the film offers anything new to conventional theater viewers. What impressed me about Monster House's animation is not so much how the characters look (they're a little doll-like), but how naturally their motions are rendered. Consider a throw-away scene early in the film when DJ and Chowder are shooting hoops. The way they dribble and shoot the ball is so fluid and effortless that it's difficult to accept it's not live-action.
200 theaters will be showing Monster House in 3D, and it promises to be a treat in that format. The conventional print offers a taste of what the fortunate minority will experience, since there are a lot of scenes in which objects come at the camera. (Consider the opening scene with a girl on a tricycle stirring up a storm of leaves.) I enjoyed watching Monster House in a regular theater; I expect those seeing it in 3D will have an elevated opinion, since it will be closer to a cross between a movie and a thrill ride. Fortunately, Monster House is strong enough that it doesn't need the 3D; it offers enough to make it palatable in any local multiplex.

Movie Reviews and Criticism by James Berardinelli. Movie-Reviews.colossus.net