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Monster House (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 July 2006
“Monster House,” a CGI-animation feature, is playing in 3-D in many venues, but a flat print was shown to the press. It’s not likely to be any better (or worse) in 3-D, but this review can’t take that aspect into consideration; judge accordingly.

It’s unusual for a director to make his feature film debut with as expensive a production as “Monster House” surely was, but this not only is Gil Kenan’s first feature as a director, but his first work of any sort on a commercial film. In terms of direction, his work is competent though far from inspired. The story itself is lumpy, and demands that the audience ignore yawning gaps in logic and believability.

However, it’s also reasonably charming with familiar though clearly-defined characters, a truly unusual premise and enough visual pizzazz to entertain kids and probably many adults.

There’s an entire subgenre of children’s fiction in which several children—usually three—have fantastic adventures, often involving them saving others. E. Nesbitt (“The Phoenix and the Carpet”) was expert at this and her Edwardian-era novels are still entertaining today. American Edward Eager was so entranced by Nesbitt that he followed her structure and concepts in several superb books for kids in the 1950s (“Half Magic,” “Knight’s Castle,” etc.). More recently, of course, J.K. Rowling greatly expanded on the scope and seriousness of this format in her best-selling Harry Potter novels.

In this sense, “Monster House” is standard, even classical, in its basic setup. We have DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), just on the brink of adolescence, and his (of course) fat friend Chowder (Sam Lerner). DJ lives across the street from a ramshackle old house inhabited by cranky old Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who rushes out screaming whenever kids stray onto his unfenced lawn. We might notice that he seems less afraid of what the kids might do than scared over what might happen to them—but the kids don’t notice.

DJ has been watching, he thinks “surveilling,” the house for some time, keeping track of Nebbercracker’s behavior and what prompts it. He’s sure there’s something really weird about that house.

He’s right, of course, or there wouldn’t be a movie. When his parents go out of town for a while the day before Halloween, they have slightly Goth babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) move in to look after DJ. She’s more interested in making out with her slacker boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee), he of the rotten teeth and 1970s attitude.
Chowder’s new basketball ends up on the lawn of the Monster House, and the two boys are trepidations about retrieving it—at least for a while. Events lead to the (apparent) death of Nebbercracker, for which DJ feels profoundly guilty. Meanwhile, Jenny (Spencer Locke), an entrepreneur about DJ’s age, shows up in the neighborhood—and the house pulls the warning signs Nebbercracker installed down into the lawn, which has prehensile grass.

The house almost grabs Jenny with its long, stair carpet tongue, so the three kids become determined to solve the mystery of the Monster House—without getting eaten by it. The story involves a couple of cops and a local video game geek who is evidently wise beyond his years. At least he tells the trio that he’s heard of houses that are animated by a dead person’s spirit.

The script by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler remains focused on the neighborhood—indeed, there are no scenes elsewhere—and on the three kids, but still lurches somewhat. It takes a while to set up the basic idea—the house actually is alive and a menace—and to get all three characters on stage. The sidebar with Skull, the video game fan, adds little to the story other than the idea that the house may be animated by a spirit. Skull does get to utter the movie’s least funny, most peculiar line—“You make me want to throw up in tin foil and eat it”—that is, bizarrely, included in some of the movie’s trailers.

At the climax, the house not only shows that it’s alive, it pulls itself out of the soil and chases the kids down the street. And here’s where “Monster House” makes its most peculiar stumble, but one that most kids in the audience won’t notice. Zee simply disappears from the story when she’s not needed. It’s Halloween night. Care has been taken to show the neighborhood peopled with trick-or-treaters. And yet when the house deafeningly uproots itself and clatters down the street, NO ONE NOTICES. There’s an explosion at the end and NO ONE NOTICES.

Director Kenan simply ignores this and other logic flaws, hoping the audience will do the same. And most kids will—but some will be irked by this oversight, as well they should be. Fantastic movies do depend upon a the classic “willing suspension of disbelief,” usually by a fast pace or a story so involving logic flaws are invisible. But here, the sight and sound of a glowering, roaring two-story house, clattering down a neighborhood street, shedding boards as it goes, is so eye-poppingly spectacular that for it to pass unnoticed by anyone but the primary cast is, frankly, ridiculous.

Still, the premise is so unusual—I’ve never seen a movie in which a house gets up and chases people—that it will buy a lot of forgiveness from the less demanding in the audience. The sight of the house isn’t as awesome or spectacular as it might have been, but I suspect a 3-D presentation will compensate.

The CGI animation is pretty damned awesome itself. It’s extremely expressive, far more so than in any other CGI film so far. Tiny, subtle shifts in facial expression, small graceful gestures—these have never before been rendered so well. The work is clearly so intensely painstaking and detailed that you have to wonder why they didn’t just use real people in the first place. That, of course, would have gotten by such infelicities as hair that looks like it’s carved out of hard rubber, and heads that are out of proportion to the bodies. The grace and beauty of the facial expressions and gestures invite you into this world, the awkward hair, the disproportionate faces and bodies, pull you out again at once.

The interior of the house is another world, obeying laws that remain obscure. A net of glass balls with candles hanging inside the entry hall is described by Jenny as the house’s uvula (“I see,” Chowder says, “it’s a woman house”), probably the first time that word has been spoken in an American animated feature. But it turns out to be important to the plot, a means of rescuing our trio when the house’s gorge rises—quite literally. A viscous, phosphorescent fluid rises from the house’s “throat.” Have you ever seen a house barf?

Most of the actors do admirable jobs, including the three newcomer kids who are the central trio. But Jason Lee, as the dopey boyfriend, is way off, very amateurish; it’s hard to believe this guy did such a good job in “The Incredibles.” Some characters have virtually nothing to do, such as DJ’s mom (Catherine O’Hara) and dad (Fred Willard)—so why were name actors hired for those roles? Probably just to use their names in advertising. Kathleen Turner’s role, Constance, is even more limited. Apart from the central trio, only Steve Buscemi has enough to do, although the local cops are somewhat amusing. The very green rookie, though, is a tired cliché and should have been avoided.

There’s another cliché lurking in the Secret Origin of the Monster House, a flashback related by Nebbercracker. He fell in love with a fat lady in a circus, and brought her to the home he was building. There’s an accident that leads to the birth, or whatever, of the Monster House. But this is not integrated into the story because though the woman is indeed fat, we never see her greedily gobbling food. So why does the house want to eat people? (And why does the circus keep the fat lady in a CAGE?)

Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis were two of the executive producers (and of course their names are prominent in the advertising). I suspect it was one of them who suggested the ending, as it is surprisingly reminiscent of “Quatermass and the Pit”/”Five Million Years to Earth,” and those two are known to be fond of older science fiction movies.

“Monster House” deserves praise for the originality of its the-house-is-alive-and-chasing-us story and for the expressiveness of the computer animation. The production notes admit that the primary reason the film was animated was to increase the believability of the climax—the moving house had to be done via computer animation, so having everything else animated makes it more of a piece. And allows the flamboyant but meaningless opening, following a falling autumn leaf from treetop to lawn.

But the clumsy parts, such as the early introduction of a construction machine, the failure to integrate Skull into the storyline, and the yawning logical gaps of the last couple of reels, prevent “Monster House” from being both original and special. It’s fun most of the time, and largely satisfying, but it’s ultimately just another movie.

It’s likely to make a lot of money.

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