|Written by Darren Gross|
|Wednesday, 01 November 2006|
12-year old D.J. (Mitchel Musso) is obsessed with the creepy house across the street. Its owner, an apoplectic misanthrope named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) harangues any kid who trespasses on his lawn and confiscates balls, tricycles and any item that rolls across his property line. When D.J. attempts to retrieve his friend Chowder’s (Sam Lerner) basketball, it brings him face to face with an enraged Nebbercracker, who suffers some kind of an attack, apparently dies, and is carted off in an ambulance. Almost immediately, Nebbercracker’s house comes to life and begins to lure and devour whoever ventures near. After saving shrewd private-school girl, Jenny (Spencer Locke) from the house, D.J. and Chowder enlist her help to try to stop the demonic domicile, which is becoming sneakier and more animated.
“Monster House” is a fun idea, relatable to nearly every suburban kid in America, but is given somewhat middling treatment here. It’s executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, and certainly has similarities to their work and their usual tone (”Poltergeist” for the creepy tree and “The Frighteners” for the house with the menacing rug, for a start), but is limited by its single-minded script and its technical execution.
It’s colorful, pretty to look at and funny at times, but it never quite becomes as clever and as thrilling as its potential. The number of characters is limited; it badly needs some supporting characters to add some color and to increase the feeling of this taking place in a neighborhood full of people.. While the story takes place on Halloween, and the threat of the house devouring the neighborhood children is mentioned, nothing significant is done with it. In addition, the story is overly simple, with a disappointing lack of complicating incidents or subplots. With such a single-minded tale, it desperately needs some twists and turns to increase the suspense and make it seem less direct and schematic.
The voice actors are fine, but the animation is uneven and technically odd. Instead of recording just the actors’ voices and animating the rest as is usually done, all the performances here were “motion captured.” This required the actors to act out their scenes on a stage while wearing motion capture suits and with dozens of computer tracking balls glued all over them. It’s the same process used for “The Polar Express.” The idea is to capture all the actors’ physicality and facial expressions, which are then transposed onto the animated characters.
While this may sound good on paper, it doesn’t quite come off. You’d have to put hundreds of tracking balls (which is impossible) on an actor’s face to even begin to capture the nuance and expression. Instead, the actors are forced to exaggerate their expressions just to have something register on-screen. As a result, the characters’ acting is occasionally stiff and limited, with facial expressions somewhat lacking. It seems a step back, technically, especially compared to films like “Shrek 2” and other recent animated films, which all have richer character animation, and didn’t rely on motion capture to achieve it.
The character designs are a bit awkward—with their long, thin bodies and gigantic heads, they resemble marionettes. A few scenes where they awkwardly dance or jump around look so strange, they might just as well be Gerry Anderson creations—they’re like digital “Thunderbirds” characters.
The house itself can’t be faulted. The animation and sound design that went into bringing it to life are highly impressive. The production team has given it a solid, believable presence, with a sense of weight, credible movement and menace. With the story’s everyday setting and its lack of fantastic characters, it might have worked even better as a live-action film. Certainly, the house effects could have been done believably in that arena. While the rampaging house sequence is thrilling as is, if it was in a live-action film, it would be a show-stopping achievement.
Theatrically “Monster House” was released in both flat and Digital 3-D editions. The 3-D edition was one of the most technically perfect 3-D presentations that I’ve seen. Imagery was consistently colorful, bright, razor-sharp and there was not a single instance of ghosting or even a hint of eyestrain. While off-the-screen effects were used minimally (such as the house’s rug tongue popping out of the screen when it chases Chowder), the majority of the film had excellent in-depth photography and the characters and environments had a tangible reality to them. It’s definitely the preferred way to see this film and I’d add another star to the rating for the film when seen in that environment.
“Monster House” on Blu-ray disc is a somewhat compromised experience. Pixar and most digitally animated films of recent vintage have been released on DVD transferred from the original digital source files, giving the images the highest level of sharpness and clarity available on standard definition DVD. “Monster House” was also produced digitally and naturally, one would assume that it too would receive the same digital-to-digital treatment for its Blu-ray release, but unfortunately this is not the case. The movie has clearly been transferred from a film element and the image reveals a visible grain structure that should not be there. The use of a film transfer for this movie reduces the level of sharpness and gives shots a much softer look. A digital-to-digital transfer would have none of this grain and would be technically perfect, so this edition is a missed opportunity.
That said, the Blu-ray release is probably the best the film could look outside of a digital-to-digital transfer. The colors are very bold and often luminous. Sequences of high contrast (such as interiors of the house where bright colorful areas are surrounded by deep darkness) are presented without much in the way of ghosting or edge-noise. While the transfer has issues with softness as stated above, several close-ups of textured material (like D.J.’s bunny or the characters’ rubbery, clayish hair) have an almost tangible physicality. The shots of Nebbercracker during his early confrontation with D.J. also have a stable level of detail and are almost three-dimensional. The house itself is realized with great detail so close-ups of its woodwork and the final sequences when it goes on a rampage are particularly rich and impressive.
A 3-D film should be an immersive experience. A fully utilized surround sound track can be the aural equivalent of the stereoscopic window, adding a convincing and enveloping physical reality to the entire experience. It can enhance the shock of off-screen effects and bring the entire film a “You are There” level of involving presence. The uncompressed PCM track on the Blu-ray disc is near perfect. It has a strong and effective surround presence and the rears come alive particularly during the house’s point-of-view shots and during larger, more intense sequences. The crisp, rich track is a thrilling and faithful rendition of the theatrical mix and it makes the Blu-ray experience that much more involving and exciting.
Among the extras is an art gallery featuring several atmospheric design drawings and paintings. Unfortunately, the film’s fun theatrical teaser and trailer are not included on the disc, probably because they used music from Danny Elfman’s score from “Beetlejuice.” The featurettes are very brief but offer a revealing glimpse of the performance capture technology, giving viewers a sense of what filming with this elaborate process was like. Little interview snippets with the primary cast are used throughout. None of the bonus features discusses the 3-D aspect at all. The commentary track is mostly a solo affair, with first-time director Gil Kenan discussing the origin of his involvement in the film, the processes involved and the ideas he brought to the table. He’s supported by producer Steve Starkey and an unidentified member of the production team wno were clearly recorded separately and inserted later. It’s a pretty slim batch of bonus features, but there is some enjoyable and interesting content.