Saturday, July 29, 2006

Monster House
Review by Sombrero Grande

I’d venture a guess that pretty much every kid growing up in America had a house in their neighborhood they thought was haunted. For me, it was a house that backed up to my elementary school’s playground. It was this weird yellowish color and looked like nobody had bothered even trying to take care of it, so it stood out next to all the other two-story homes on the block. The other kids on the playground and I would stare up at its dark windows and creep ourselves out imagining who or what might be looking back down at us.

For every kid who knew or knows of a house like that, there’s Monster House, a new horror/comedy/family CGI animated film from executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis.

This was the first time in a while I could recall seeing the “Amblin” logo in front of a movie, even though I know it was tacked onto War of the Worlds, The Terminal, and others, so maybe it was just the fact that this was the first movie in a while that felt like an Amblin movie that made me take notice of it. For those who don’t know, Amblin is Steven Spielberg’s production company--founded long before DreamWorks--that brought us movies in the ‘80s like Gremlins, E.T., Harry and the Hendersons and The Goonies. In my mind, Monster House could easily fit right into that pack. Monster House is a fun kid-centric adventure story that seems to hearken back to the style and feel of those ‘80s films, just with a whole lot more bells and whistles. Those bells and whistles come courtesy of Zemeckis’ animation style pioneered with The Polar Express. The actors’ performances are recorded digitally via 3D image capturing and then the filmmakers can play around with camera placement, lighting, etc. all after the actors have long gone home. However, unlike in The Polar Express, Monster House uses this technology to tell a pretty fun and engrossing story.

When the crotchety, Gollum-like old man living across the street dies, pre-teen D.J. and his best friend Chowder believe that his soul has taken possession of his dilapidated old house and is trying to get back at all the neighborhood kids that won’t keep off his lawn. Together, they’ll join forces with a--gasp--girl to try to protect their unsuspecting neighbors from the man-eating domicile on Halloween night.

Unlike Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Monster House isn’t a horror spoof that takes scary movie conventions and spins them around into something silly; it’s an honest-to-goodness scary movie aimed at kids who aren’t quite ready for slasher flicks yet. The first half of the film offers up some sincerely creepy and startling moments, and the fact that they’re often punctuated by some light comic relief won’t help calm the youngsters whose parents may have mistakenly dragged them to the theater, thinking they’d be seeing something lighter and more akin to, say, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

Even with all the film’s finely calculated scares, I must point out that the by-far creepiest aspect of Monster House is sadly unintentional, and that’s the character designs. For me, each new character’s appearance of screen was accompanied by a cringe. While a step in the right direction away from the attempted photo-realistic corpse-like humans of The Polar Express, the characters in Monster House aren’t quite caricatured enough to stop looking creepy yet. After a while I was able to get used to the designs, but then another new character would be introduced and--pow!--it’s back to freakish doll-like apparitions again.

Something that really works in the film’s favor, and, in fact, may be its strongest point, is that all the kid characters are all incredibly believable. In The Polar Express, the kids all came across as “adults writing for kids,” but in Monster House, D.J., Chowder and Jenny all come across--despite their freakish doll-like appearances--as real children. D.J.’s voice has just started cracking. He’s at that awkward age when he’s starting to notice girls and doesn’t know whether he’s too old to still be trick-or-treating or not. Chowder is that goofy kid we all knew growing up whose parents never seemed to be around and so did whatever he pleased, like wear a cape. Jenny is, of course at their age, more mature than the boys, but still hangs around with them partly because of her blossoming interest, oh and because she believes they saved her life. In this story we get to see all these kids grow up a bit, and Chowder will even come to loose his symbolic cape. It’s this tough-to-achieve childhood realism that makes it easy to get attached to these kids and enjoy accompanying them on their spooky adventure.

While I doubt it’ll ever be considered a classic, Monster House is a fun, scary movie for kids and adults alike. The realistic kid characters make up for the not-so-realistic, not-so-cartoony character designs to pull viewers into the exciting and creepy story. At this point, Monster House might even join Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas on my list of must-watch-annually movies for the month of October.


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