Monster House Review
Hear the title Monster House and you know exactly what it’s going to be about. It seems to be an always universal part of childhood that somewhere in your neighbourhood there used to be a house or building that gave you the creeps, one which you would run quickly past on the way to school or walk the long way round to avoid passing by it. There’s never any particular reason why: no gruesome stories emerged from there (aside from the ones told in the playground), no bloodcurdling yells were heard from within (aside from the ones Johnny Briggs from Year Six said he heard), indeed you knew very little if anything at all about the place, and yet were still terrified of it. Perhaps that lack of knowledge was the key: if one was being nihilistic, one could say that the first years of life are fundamentally about slowly discovering the true facts of life and mortality, and even before one becomes fully aware of such unpleasantries there’s always at the back of one’s mind - almost instinctually - the awareness that life isn’t the bowl of cherries it can appear. In a monster house a child externalises such worries, finds a focus to lock away such nagging doubts, one which, if only one manages to avoid its perils and pitfalls, one will escape such horrors and life happily ever after.
Of course, ultimately we learn that we can’t always take the long route to the shops, that at some point we have to stop and confront the darker aspects of life. It’s called growing up, and that’s what Gil Kenan’s debut film is about. It’s what all decent children’s adventure films are about, from obvious examples such as The Goonies through to fellow CGI-efforts such as Toy Story and Monster House is an utterly typical, albeit superiorly made, example of its genre. The plot sees best friends DJ and Chowder (Mitchell Musso and Sam Lerner) teaming up with posh girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) when they slowly realise that the creepy old house DJ lives opposite to has somehow become a living, breathing thing and is eating anyone who darkens its front door. Naturally no one believes them (I long for the day that I see a film like this where the adult immediately believes them and takes charge) leaving them with only one choice… to enter the Monster House itself and slay the beast from within!
In the nearly twelve years since Toy Story was first released CGI films have gone from novelty to norm, and since long gone are the days when every film released was a masterpiece and films such as Open Season and Madagascar are becoming the norm (hell, we can’t even rely on Pixar to deliver the goods any more) we should celebrate when a decent one comes along. Yet when Monster House came out earlier this year the reviews were not so complimentary as raves which, on seeing the picture, seem a little overblown. Make no mistake, it’s a good film, well made with amusing characters, a likeable script and attractive visuals. It’s just let down by one fundamental flaw: it is utterly formulaic.
The opening scene lulls one into false hopes. The film opens with a small, pigtailed girl cycling along happily on her bike, singing a song and greeting everything she passes, a sequence so twee that one can’t believe that something isn’t going to come along and rip it apart. For one blissful moment I sat there in happy anticipation of the moment she passed the Monster House and was swallowed up, her echoing screams to be heard all the way down its gullet (and, hopefully for the rest of the film). Sadly, I’d forgotten that this was a children’s movie and that such things aren’t allowed to happen outside the world of Family Guy; instead she is confronted by old Mr Nebbercracker, the owner of said house (played by Steve Buscemi) who breaks her bicycle, which I suppose is bad enough. The thing is, though, that opening moment suggests that this is a film that is going to subvert as well as enthral, and it just doesn’t. It is totally without artifice, working on a single level, a level that works supremely well for the little ‘uns but will have Mums and Dads just smiling benignly as they reflect they’ve seen it all before. At no point does it surprise, whether it be the utterly standard development of the story or the characters themselves, who work as a checklist you would expect to see in this genre: the archetypal hero, his best friend who is fat and comical, the Hermoine-Granger posh clever girl who normally wouldn’t be seen dead with the likes of the two boys teaming up with them to save the day, the old evil man who turns out to be a good-natured soft soap who wants nothing more than to cuddle everyone and offer them Werther’s Originals, the stupid adults who don’t believe them, the bullies who get their comeuppance… and on and on.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really, I guess, if you’re the film’s target age. Neither should it take away from the fact that in most other respects this is really a high-quality addition to the CGI pantheon in an age when mediocrity seems to be increasingly the standard. The most of the rest of this review will be spent in praising the film in one way or another; it’s just a shame that the actual shape of it, its script, is so basic. Even its themes are mundane; as with the opening scene, early exchanges suggest we’re going to get something with a bit of meat here, only to be disappointed as the plot takes over. There’s the hint we’re going to get something about the awkwardness of adolescence in a scene early on when DJ’s mother embarrasses both her son and husband as she tries to get Dad to say I love you (one of the most amusing moments in the entire film, indeed) while the eventual explanation for who’s really the monster of the piece has implications that could have been interesting, but all these are all but abandoned once the adventure proper starts, with everything ending happily (even the victims are shown crawling out of the house at the end with no harm intended, which given what’s been implied previously seems rather unlikely) and the only change to the main characters being that they have taken that first brave step into adolescence, whether it be Chowder discovering he isn't necessarily a wimp or DJ and Jenny sharing a first kiss (stop me if you've heard it before...)
However, even if what they’re doing isn’t going to surprise you, the characters themselves are great fun to watch, and, in their movements and facial expressions, are some of the most genuinely lifelike I’ve seen in a CGI film. As opposed to the recognisable caricatures of, say, The Incredibles if one was judging purely on mannerisms as opposed to appearance, it’d be very easy to believe these were actual people dressed up in some sort of weird costumes, and in a way that’s precisely what they are. Using a technique called Performance Capture, the performers actually act out the film in a space with tens of little markers attached to their face and bodies which are filmed with infrared cameras, before artists feed the information into their PCs and work their magic. Put simply it’s a more advanced version of what’s been done for years with things like Gollum in Lords of the Rings or the robots in I, Robot but the first time it was used to make a complete film was in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. However, Monster House is the first film I’ve seen where it’s really worked effectively - as opposed to Zemeckis’ film, which turned what was an innocuous fairytale into what appeared to be a movie about terrifyingly expressionless zombies, here the characters really do come alive, and have a naturalism about them that is really quite impressive (although at times they’re oddly weightless). The actual look of the characters is fine but unremarkable but they are made memorable by the actors themselves.
Of their characterisation, the child actors do well. With the two boys, it’s Lerner’s Chowder who comes across the best: as with many other young heroes, Musso’s DJ hampered by the very straight-laced, almost bland persona the script gives him. As the principal “villain” Buscemi is very good, revealing that there’s more to his baddy persona than the oily little sneak he plays so often (as well as handling the more emotive scenes at the end of the film in a way totally credible with what has gone before). Of the adults, there’s not nearly enough seen of Fred Willard’s Dad and a little too much of Jon Heder’s Bones, while Kathleen Turner’s appearance in the latter half of the film is pleasingly appropriate. That said, my favourites were the two police officers, played by Kevin James and Nick Cannon (hopefully the only time in my life I’ll have to write that Kevin James was my favourite thing in something), with Cannon especially hilarious as the wide-eyed, clueless cop.
On his first gig, director Kenan has fun with all the possibilities the technology affords him, with plenty of swooping around intercut with some nicely layered shots and a rousing showdown set in a junkyard. Visually, the screen is flooded with warm autumnal colours with even the scenes set at night having a primary, almost bright complexion, but aside from an amusing look at a retro video game from the 1980s the art design is only truly exciting when we see the innards of the house itself, which are made up to look like the inside of a human body; so the unfurling stairs carpet is the tongue, a swinging light the uvula (leading to a rather risqué joke) and so on. It would have been nice to have seen more of that but, besides this sequence, there’s not a huge amount of imagination shown here; there’s certainly not the invention of Pixar of a Shrek at its best, which is fine as it goes but another reason this film doesn’t quite score top marks.
Perhaps I’m a little harsh on it: it’s all done very well, with evident total conviction of all involved, and as a fun little ride works perfectly. The momentum of the story never flags, the leads are attractive, the house suitably scary, the funny moments suitably amusing and it seems perfectly judged for its target audience. The one thing it’s missing is true inspiration - besides its basic pitch it does precious little most people won’t have seen a thousand times before. If you’ve got a wee nipper who’s not seen it yet go out and grab it as an early Christmas present (although do beware; there are several accounts dotted around the net suggesting that very young children have found the film quite frightening, which is perfectly understandable) but if you’ve already conquered your own fear of that weird house on the corner, don’t believe the hype: it’s good, but not great, A Bug’s Life rather than a Finding Nemo.
Monster House is presented on one single-sided dual-layered disc. The outer case has what it calls an “interactive animation wheel” on the front which, when turned, shows four stages of the house gobbling up our three heroes. The case has an inner page but this has no practical function other than to show the reverse of the wheel, which also has the house doing its thing when said wheel is turned, and is filled with a picture of the main cast and the slogan “There goes the neighbourhood.”
The disc opens with three trailers for Open Season, Zoom and Spider-Man 3, before progressing to the Main Menu. This is a very simple scene showing the front yard of the house with the options shown on two signs shoved in the front lawn (which are quite tiny if you don’t have a decent-sized display), while in the background the house grumbles menacingly. The five options are Play Movie, Languages, Scene Selections, Special Features and Previews (which feature the three listed above as well as ads for RV, The Pink Panther - the Steve Martin version, naturally - and Are We There Yet?) On accessing a submenu, the house lurches forward at you and, depending which menu you are on, one of the missing objects from the film dangles tantalising in front of you while one makes the choice.
A very clear, nice transfer with bright colours and clearly defined lines, there are no problems with it as far as I could see, and it all comes across well.
The Monster House roars and you jump, this is a fun aural track that particularly becomes alive (no pun intended) when the children enter the house and when one feels surrounded, which is quite eerie.
Occasionally informative but mostly dull commentary that occasionally oversteps the border in regards to praising people involved or wanders into pretension and banality; at one point someone actually uses the expression “ragtag collection of heroes” while there’s a lengthy sequence in which the makers state the blindingly obvious about the themes of the film at great and tedious length. Content aside, there’s one glaring problem; it’s a cut 'n' paste affair that doesn’t actually say who is talking. Not helped by the fact that several of the participants sound alike, it is possible to get an idea of who is talking after a while, but for the first twenty minutes at least this is a major irritant. Altogether worth a miss.
Inside Monster House (22:29)
Seven short featurettes (with a handy Play All function) look at the making of the film, from initial ideas and sketches, through to the actors on the stage floor and on to putting their performances into the computer and coming out with the final version. Brief but fine, a typical collection for a film of this type.
Evolution of a Scene (2:55)
In which one can see the various stages a scene (in this case the opening sequence featuring the little girl on her bike) is put together, from initial animatic through to final version. A brief featurette talks one through the process and then there is the option to switch between stages using a Multi-Angle option. An absolutely bog-standard extra for CGI films these days but fine as an example of its type.
The Art of Monster House
A generous collection of behind-the-scenes images from the film, divided into three categories - Conceptual Art, People (which focuses exclusively on the characters, not the actors) and Place and Things. In a slideshow format, this is a good collection of attractively-drawn storyboards and character sketches.
Although it has quite a nice menu, there’s just three weblinks to divert you here, one of which takes you to a page of games and Monster House downloadables.
A fun little movie gets an average collection of extras that won’t divert for long, but the film itself should merit more than one watch for the younger members of the family.