Horror comedy takes familiar story into animated territory
Directed by Gil Kenan
Cast: Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal
There are certain things that kids have always loved: bugs, pirates, monsters, fart jokes. All of these topics have been dutifully exploited by kids movies since time immemorial. (Admittedly, the fart jokes were a bit hard to pull off back in the silent film era, but I have no doubt somebody made the effort.) In this respect, the new CGI toon Monster House isn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary.
Monster House follows in the long tradition of Something Wicked This Way Comes and other supernaturally obsessed family fare (“The Addams Family,” The Monster Squad, everything R.L. Stine ever wrote). Plenty of kids grew up with the idea of having a “haunted” house in their neighborhood. Chances are it was a run-down home lorded over by a cranky retiree who had little patience for school-age whippersnappers. This idea has been borrowed by hundreds of books, movies and television shows over the years (usually with a tired lesson about not judging a book by its cover tacked on to the end).
In Monster House, we are introduced to young DJ (Mitchel Musso), a curious kid hovering on the edge of puberty (squeaky voice and all) who has been left at home with a cranky teenaged babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Although no adults will listen to him, DJ is firmly convinced that the rickety wooden two-story across the street houses some ominous mystery.
One afternoon, while bravely retrieving a basketball belonging to his chubby buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner), DJ has a run-in with the house’s owner, Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). Nebbercracker is a crotchety old man who delights in stealing any toys that have the misfortune of landing on his lawn. In the course of his angry confrontation with DJ, Nebbercracker apparently has a heart attack and is taken away in a slow-moving ambulance.
Nebbercracker’s absence only seems to make things worse. DJ and Chowder soon conclude that Nebbercracker’s creepy house is somehow alive and is ravenously devouring people and pets in their quiet suburban neighborhood. On top of that, tomorrow night is Halloween--meaning the streets will be filled with tons of tasty, unsuspecting children. With the aid of a brainy girl scout (Spencer Locke), DJ and Chowder go to war against this (quite literally) monstrous abode.
Writers Rob Schrab (creator of the Scud the Disposable Assassin comic) and his buddy Dan Harmon have been responsible for dozens of nutty, no-budget film shorts. (Check out the classic “Robot Bastard!” for hilarity in its purest form, or log on to www.channel101.com for tons of Schrab/Harmon lunacy.) They wrote the screenplay for Monster House eight years ago as a live-action horror comedy. Though quite well received in Hollywood, the project was deemed “unfilmable.” That is, until CGI animation became fully viable.
Unlike past CG efforts (The Polar Express, for example), there is no attempt to make the characters look photorealistic. (Thankfully.) While motion-capture animation gives the film a fluid, realistic feel, the characters are designed like bigheaded, stop-motion puppets from some old Rankin-Bass holiday special--which only adds to the film’s old-fashioned appeal. It’s no surprise to see Steven Spielberg listed as producer, since the film fits in nicely with his ’80s efforts such as E.T., Gremlins and Goonies. A retro design scheme (complete with primitive arcade games) is sure to give adults in the audience a cozy feeling of childhood.
The dialogue is clever and believably “kid-like,” and the old chestnut of a story boasts just enough twists and turns to give it a fresh (almost Tim Burton-ish) feel. It is worth noting that Monster House is, at times, a pretty dark and scary thrill ride. This ain’t some Scooby-Doo switcheroo--the damn house sprouts teeth and eats people! It’s more than enough to trigger nightmares in the youngest of youngsters. Why it wasn’t released over Halloween, I cannot say. But older kids and nostalgic adults are in for some scary fun.