Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2006

'House' party

Animation finally gets its soul back in 'Monster House'

Monster House
Sony Pictures
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenplay: Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler
Starring the voices of: Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke, Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, Kevin James, Jon Heder and Nick Cannon
Rated PG / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Opened July 21, 2006
(out of four)

What a joy it is -- and an absolute relief -- to see a movie like Monster House after treading through the murky depths of animated mediocrity for the last few years. It's about time.

You see, a strange thing happened on the way to the new digital animation revolution. Well, a few things. First, it became unimaginably popular. And so naturally, everyone wanted to get in on it, the movement took off and with it died most of hand-drawn animation . . . and, unfortunately, a lot of novelty and originality, too. Things got stale, dumbed-down, inane and, in some cases, almost unwatchable.

It's odd, how the advances that were supposed to usher in an era of new-found sophistication a la Toy Story and Shrek instead has brought us more of that old garbage that used to go direct-to-video and that you kept stocked right next to those insufferable Mary-Kate and Ashley movies. The kind of movies you only allowed the kids to watch when you were upstairs "napping" or when the babysitter was over.

It's tough times like these that make Monster House all the more rewarding. This is a kind of throwback to the suspense/action kids' movies of the 1980s -- a film critic friend of mine mentioned E.T. and The Goonies as probable influences, and that gets it just about right. Like those two, Monster House is the kind of movie that taps into childhood fears and fantasies, it's as if we're getting the movie straight from a child's mind -- and I mean that as a compliment. Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner understood how to do that in such a way that adults could understand, relate and be understood just as well as the kids -- if not more so.

First-time director Gil Kenan, working with executive producers Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, is a worthy disciple.

Everyone who was ever a child had that one creepy, foreboding house they were scared to go into. We all had that grumpy, terrifying, unkempt neighbor (in most cases, a scraggly old man). And we all had that year where we realized that this was probably going to be our last time ever Trick-or-Treating before we finally had to Grow Up. We all remember those years with a sort of bittersweet fondness.

Monster House is about all of those things, blended together into an amalgamation of dazzling visuals and funny, wisecracking dialogue. ("That ball cost me $28! I had to ask my mom for a dollar 26 times . . . and I raked a lawn. I've never worked so hard in my life!" -- That sounds like something I might have said when I was 11 or so.)

The two kids at the center of the story are DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) and his best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) . . . and, needless to say, Chowder is the plump one.

DJ lives across the street from the scary Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi, providing the perfect voice for the crotchety old man always screaming at the kids to get off my lawn!). Now, Nebbercracker's house has a reputation for, well, eating things. Like, for instance, tricycles, basketballs, puppies, etc.

But it all hits the fan one day when Nebbercracker suffers an apparent heart attack, leaving the children to walk on his lawn all they like . . . and investigate the house themselves. Along for the ride is a young girl named Jenny (Spencer Locke), the kind of girl the boys think they like, and start competing over, while really not understanding what it is they're supposed to fall for, or do with, a female. It's a confusing time, despite the boys' assertion that they have "lots of puberty."

In many ways, Monster House is a lot like The Sandlot -- but instead of a giant killer dog in the neighbor's backyard, it's a giant killer house that the kids fear and, inevitably, have to take on face-to-face. And I mean face.

The ingeniousness of the animation in this movie comes to light when the house comes to life -- and when it does, it really does. It has eyes and a mouth and a long wet tongue, and a throat to swallow all those toys and small animals that it has collected over the years. And when the kids try to break in and snoop around . . . well, the house gets very, very angry. The house itself is a piece of fantastic animation. It's way more expressive than the cars in Cars or most of the talking animals in The Chronicles of Narnia . . . and certainly more expressive than the creepy, dead-eyed, animatronic zombie freaks in The Polar Express.

Running a brisk 91 minutes, Monster House is a fun suspense/adventure story for a while, delightfully odd and maybe a bit screwy . . . and then it kicks into high gear. The climactic half-hour is sensational. Kenan seems to have mastered his craft already. It's not just that the action is exciting -- Monster House offers the kind of cinematography that we're only used to seeing in live-action fare.

In fact, in many scenes, the film almost seems like it is live-action. That's the level of sophistication Kenan and his creative collaborators have found -- and in a world of Madagascar and Hoodwinked and Robots and Valiant, Monster House is something special.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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