Monster House review by Mike Long

Live-action movies can be judged on many terms based on the diverse elements which going into making the films. But, as far as I'm concerned, animated movies can only be judged on two key aspects: story and animation. Everything else, voice acting, music, etc. can certainly affect the impact of the film, but it all comes down to story and animation. In a perfect animated film, both the story and the animation works well. In a film like Monster House, neither element is ideal and thus, the movie suffers.

Monster House introduces the audience to best friends D.J. (voiced by Mitchel Musso) and Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner). D.J. is a relatively normal pre-adolescent, while Chowder is somewhat slow and goofy. Directly across the street from D.J.'s house is the intimidating home of Mr. Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi), a cantankerous old man who is notorious for scaring children and demanding that they stay off of his lawn. When Chowder's new basketball rolls into Nebbercracker's yard, he convinces D.J. to retrieve it. While doing this, Nebbercracker confronts D.J. and the old man has a heart attack. This is certainly disturbing for D.J., but things suddenly get worse. Once Nebbercracker is taken away in an ambulance, his house seemingly comes to life and begins to not only move, but to grab objects and people and suck them inside.

Obviously, D.J. and Chowder are freaked-out by this development, but they are able to save Jenny (voiced by Spencer Locke) who has approached the house to sell cookies. When D.J.'s babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the local police (voiced by Kevin James and Nick Cannon) don't believe the kid's story, they decide that they will tackle the evil house themselves.

Well, it's looks as if I've painted myself into a critical corner, so I'll now defend my prior assertions about the importance of story and animation. We'll start with the story. Monster House. This movie is a very odd combination of simplistic action and a very detailed backstory. At the outset, we just take for granted that the house is somehow "alive" and wants to hurt people. But, as the film progresses, the audience learns the very detailed history of the house and the reasons for why it is a truly a "monster house" are revealed. I was very surprised by just how comprehensive this part of the story is. And yet, by comparison, the part of the story surrounding D.J., Chowder, and Jenny is very shallow. Their motivations are simplistic and vague (other than survival). I really had trouble with the action sequences in the film. Despite the fact that we are told that the kids have a plan, these scenes are very loose and poorly structured. If this had been a live-action film, I would have assumed that the director had simply turned on the camera and told the cast to go nuts. The story is further hampered by unnecessary subplots concerning D.J.'s babysitter and the jealousy which forms when both D.J. and Chowder are attracted to Jenny.

OK, so the story is hit or miss, what about the animation. I'm afraid that it's the same story here as well. Monster House was made using the same performance capture technique which was utilized for The Polar Express. This film wisely disposes of the "realistic" look of The Polar Express (which made all of the characters look like zombies) and goes for a more "cartoony" feel. And yet, some of the animation is lacking in detail. The fact that every character's hair looks as if it's made of clay is just one example of how stiff-looking some of the elements in the film are. To it's credit, the house looks great and the scenes where it moves are definitely effective. While the actual animation isn't inspiring, the camerawork is. Director Gil Kenan takes advantage of the animation process by moving the camera in many unique and exciting ways which will make live-action filmmakers very jealous. It's a shame that the cool shots in the movie typically work their way into lifeless-looking animation.

And now for the most important point of my review; This movie is not appropriate for small children. I'm not trying to tell anyone how to live their lives, but this movie is not appropriate for small children. Have I made that clear? When the house really gets going, the imagery will most likely be frightening to younger members of audience (especially when it's combined with a good surround sound system). But, there are other inappropriate elements here as well. The scene where the babysitter and her boyfriend roll around on the couch was unnecessary and the way that the boys argue over Jenny may be realistic, but it also seems slightly icky giving their presumed ages.

As someone who loves horror movies and is not opposed to seeing horror-themed elements aimed at a younger audience, I was excited to see Monster House. But, I came away from the film disappointed. The story is all over the place and the animation is never consistent. However, the most disappointing aspect is that I can't watch this film with my daughters. They may be in the target demographic, but I've decided that they aren't old enough to see this movie.

Monster House rolls out red carpet on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the full-frame version was viewed. (It should be noted that the widescreen version has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs.) I wasn't crazy about the fact that I would be watching the full-frame release, but I hoped that it would be like the Pixar DVDs where the image is re-formatted for a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. That's not the case here, as pan-and-scan was evident throughout the film and there were several scenes where I knew that something was meant to be on the left or right side of the screen, but we couldn't see it. Beyond those problems, the image looked pretty good. I don't know if the transfer was taken directly from the digital source, but the image is sharp and clear. The colors looked fine and the film's use of darkness and shadows was well-rendered here. The DVD carries an impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. The film's sound design is excellent and the reproduction here is top-notch. The dialogue is sharp and clear and the stereo effects are great. The surround sound effects work very well during the action scenes and the subwoofer really gets a work out when the house goes into action.

The Monster House contains a small gathering of special features. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY which features director Gil Kenan...and several other speakers. The problem is that they never identify themselves and their names aren't listed anywhere on the DVD box or in the press material. (I think that one is co-writer Pam Pettler.) The various speakers are not together and their comments have simply been edited together. The result is a commentary which has some good information, but it's also somewhat disconcerting at the same time. "Inside Monster House" is a series of short featurettes which total about 25 minutes. These segments look at the character design, the casting, the performance capture technique, the animation, and the sound design. As with the film, this feature is hit or miss as well. There is a ton of behind-the-scenes footage of the various actors performing in the performance capture studio, but we never learn why this technique is used rather than traditional CGI animation. With "Evolution of a Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker" (3 minutes) we see how the film went through four stages (animated storyboard, performance capture, animatic, animation) to become a finished product. The four elements of this scene can be watched individually. "The Art of Monster House" is comprised of three still galleries, Conceptual Art, People, and Places and Things.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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