As time goes by, we become inured to the magnificence of the cutting-edge techniques found in animation. Remember when Toy Story came out, and we were all “Woo! Awesome animation! It’s so… so lifelike!” And then with each passing year, we were more “Eh, looks nice. It’ll keep the kids entertained.” The resultant ennui with ‘toon films has forced animation studios to be even more innovative.
So for Monster House, images of the actors providing the characters’ voices were captured using 3D motion techniques; then the animated form of the characters was added as a top layer, producing a level of clarity and articulation that approaches that found in live-action films. It’s really pretty neat, but there’s a caveat: Because of the enhanced realism, the movie can be frightening to young children. When Wile E. Coyote attempts to drop an anvil on the Roadrunner, no one’s terrified that a bird’s gonna be splattered all over the place, because everything looks.. well, cartoony. Unrealistic. Taking place in someone’s vivid imagination. But take that terror and multiply it by two or three and then make the whole shebang as realistic looking as possible, and your fright factor is exponential. (Sorry, didn’t mean to involve math there.)
D.J. (Mitchel Musso) is a loner/nerd whose parents Just Don’t Understand. He also keeps tabs on the house across the street, the kind of house every neighborhood seems to have – a spooky-looking old manse with a spotty history buoyed by decades of gossip and innuendo. The house’s sole occupant is Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), your standard “Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!” mean old man. (In the opening sequence, he grabs a little girl’s tricycle and destroys it.) Something’s fishy about Old Man Nebbercracker and his house, but D.J. can’t convince his hands-off parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara); they in turn hand him off to a virulently nasty babysitter named Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about D.J. or his babblings about mean old men, she just wants to hang out with her boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) and smooch.
But D.J. is not without backup. His best pal is Chowder (Sam Lerner), a portly, crewcutted lad who acts about forty times faster than he thinks, which makes for high comedy. They’ve been buds for a long while, so when an entreprenurial Girl Scout clone shows up to sell candy, they both compete for her affection. Of course, this subtle story thread takes a back seat to the ominous house across the street, and D.J. and Chowder team up with their new pal Jenny (Spencer Locke) to solve the mystery. But is this an ordinary tale of a crotchety old man who hates kids? Or is there something more sinister at play? The title of the movie might provide a subtle hint.
The characterizations are wonderful, with the troika of Lerner, Musso, and Locke perfectly essaying the dynamics of childhood interactions: the two best buddies, the interloper, the first love. You honestly believe these are real kids acting out real situations and facing their fears of the unknown, older people, even puberty. Such natural-seeming acting isn’t simple for anyone, especially novice actors, even if they’re providing only a voice. Gyllenhaal is sweetly menacing, and I wish I’d seen/heard more of O’Hara and Willard. Kathleen Turner, who provided the voice of Jessica Rabbit once upon a time for producer Robert Zemeckis, shows up as the voice of the titular house, and although we don’t hear a heck of a lot of her, what we hear is choice. Supreme to them all, though, is Buscemi as Old Man Nebbercracker – a huge asset solidfying the film.
As I mentioned before, one issue with the movie is that the violence can get pretty intense at times. I mean, the house is ALIVE and eats people and pets and toys. There’s no blood or dismemberment, certainly, but kids are in constant peril, and it all feels so much more real than your typical cartoon that for really young tots this might be a little too nerve wracking. I actually looked at the screen at one point and said, “This movie is messed up!” the hair-raising, children-in-harm’s-way would make for a decent thriller/horror movie if it were live action. Hey, I’m not saying I was scared, mind you! I’m just looking out for the kids. Yeah, the kids.
Anyway, Monster House is loads of fun. It’s genuine scares and thrills combined with a real ear for how kids interact with each other. A winner.
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