Judge Brett Cullum is more familiar with the Party House.
Chowder: [whispering] It mocks us with its…house-ness!
Monster House is a movie I've heard so much about that I knew sitting down to catch it on DVD could never live up to the hype. Two enthusiastic thumbs up from Ebert and Roeper, friends proclaiming it was Toy Story meets The Goonies, and strangers talking about it in my local DVD store on release date…all boded well for this CGI animation title. So do we have a new classic on our hands, or a digital mess that even Bob Villa couldn't fix up? With Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and Steven (insert blockbuster title here) Spielberg above the title there's little chance the film could go wrong. Monster House looked to be prime real estate for a family Halloween tale.
Facts of the Case
Lanky adolescent DJ (Mitchel Muso) knows something is spooky about the house across the street where the old, cranky Mr. Nebbercraker (Steve Buscemi, The Island) lives. After the toy stealing curmudgeon suffers a heart attack and is whisked to the hospital, the mysterious mansion comes to life and starts stalking poor DJ. With the help of two friends—the heavy set Chowder (Sam Lerner) and smart hottie Jenny (Spencer Locke, Resident Evil: Extinction), a hefty supply of cold medication, a laissez fare baby-sitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko), and some explosives, he's going to take on the Monster House.
This is a very cute, well-made piece of what I like to call "digimation" (short for digital animation). Much has been made that it might be "too scary for kids," or it's actually kind of dark, but that seems to be be shortchanging kids. Monster House may feature a puppy- and police-eating structure, but it's no worse than a Grimm Fairy Tale and nowhere near as violent as a video game. Monster House benefits by not talking down to kids, and captures them perfectly by doing it all deftly enough to make us want to believe a house can do things only monsters can. You will enjoy this one, and your kids will love it.
As usual with modern animation, the cast of voices reads like a "who's who" of Hollywood. The characters are given life by Steve Buscemi, Maggie Glyenhaal, Jason Lee (My Name is Earl), Kevin James (The King of Queens), Nick Cannon (MTV's Wild 'N' Out and Day of the Dead) , John Heder (the one and only Napoleon Dynamite), Catherine O'Hara (Home Alone), Fred Willard (Waiting for Guffman), and a special appearance by Kathleen Turner as she erases her memory of playing the sexiest cartoon character Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit by becoming the voice of the Monster House. The actors provide a grand sense of fun, and because the animation is done with "motion capture" technology they provide the movements and facial expressions as well.
First time British director and UCLA film graduate student Gil Kenan helms the proceedings, and he makes the film feel like something that could have sprung from the minds of his executive producing team of Zemeckis and Spielberg. Through the use of stylized story book 3-D animation and smart pacing and plotting, Monster House is a charming hour and a half of digital animation. The story feels fantastic and is grounded in a child's-eye view of wonder and amazement. Monster House looks like claymation, but with a smoother quality common to modern CGI techniques. The light horror earned the film a "PG" rating, but it should be fine for the five-and-up crowd.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The running time of Monster House bogs it down. At an hour and a half the climax feels like a long time coming, and the movie loses steam when it decides to go completely over the top with explosions and action cliches. The first two-thirds is unique, so when it conforms to modern conventions in the final act I felt slightly betrayed. I never lost interest, but was hoping for more wit near the end.
When the film was released theatrically, several theatres received 3-D prints; Monster House is best experienced on a large screen with cardboard glasses. It looks great on DVD, but I wish the studio could find a way to recreate the three-dimensional presentation for home viewing. It would add a lot to the story, and make owning it a "must buy." Sony has provided two versions of the disc featuring either a full or wide screen transfer. Unfortunately, all reviewers received the full screen edition. Seek out the wide screen print since so much of the movie relies on the wonderful art direction and visuals. With a digital source, Monster House has a predictably pristine print with wonderful depth, color, and black levels making it as close to perfect as you can get. I imagine the Blu Ray edition will look even more spectacular, but for DVD it looks immaculate. Extras include seven featurettes that when played together make up a twenty something minute look at the process of making the film. Also included are sequence development comparisons and art galleries. The commentary only names director Gil Kenan, but he is joined by writers and producers who provide a solid track about the casting and process.
It's not up to the classic status of the reigning king of "digimation" Toy Story, yet Monster House is an excellent family film on Halloween. It doesn't have the pop culture references of Shrek; it feels timeless for that reason. The animation is groundbreaking, the performances are lively, and the story serves everyone well except for an over the top climax that still manages to get the job done. Monster House knows how to create a mood and a world that feels fresh and classic simultaneously. This is the best family release of the season, and adults should find the film engaging enough to not mind a viewing with the younger set. At heart Monster House is designed for kids despite some dark flourishes. Like a modern fairy tale, it's not afraid to put the children in real danger with a threatening monster capable and willing to kill to get what it wants. But don't worry, by the end the kids will grow up and confront their fears. That's the real reason the flick works so well—it captures that moment when childhood begins to slide out of fantasy in to adulthood.
Guilty of being the perfect Halloween DVD for the entire family.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Gil Kenan, Screenwriter Pamela Pettler, Producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke
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