In the 1980s, films described as “family” or “children’s” films were not mainly timewasters meant to keep the little ones engaged while Mom and Dad traipsed off to see something else at the theater or to make dinner. Nope. Instead, talented writers and directors used the medium to present films that articulated intelligent and well-written dialogue that was enjoyable for the entire family, not a mere segment. It mattered not if the film was animated or live-action — more often than not what you got was quality. Films like Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story, Richard Donner’s The Goonies, and Richard Franklin’s Cloak & Dagger all gave us characters we could relate to and situations we either would love to be in or would wonder how we’d get out of them ourselves.
Director Gil Kenan and his writers, Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler, have crafted an unbelievably original yet wholly reminiscent tale of a domicile gone demonic. Monster House, the latest animated offering from Sony (and the first to successfully use motion capture animation), allows us to recall what it meant to be twelve and in those akward years of uncertainty and yet still clinging somewhat to our sense of child-like wonder. In the film, DJ, a young boy, and his best friend, Chowder, are afraid of Mr. Nebbercracker, the cantankerous old man whose house is rotting from the inside it seems. He hates children, especially when they get on his lawn. After Chowder’s basketball accidentally rolls onto the old man’s lawn, DJ tries to retrieve it. But Mr. Nebbercracker grabs DJ and yells at him, inciting a heart attack which kills the old man instantly. DJ feels responsible for the man’s death. But soon thereafter, the boys notice that the house is…ALIVE…and will eat anything that crosses its path. The two buddies decide that they must do something and so, after enlisting the help of Jenny, a girl who goes to the nearby prep school, the trio set about enacting a plan to prevent the house from devouring anything or anyone else in their suburban neighborhood.
Kudos must be given to the animators. The motion-capture animation done in The Polar Express was pedestrian at best. Monster House remedies that with lush, vibrant colors and attention to detail that has to be seen to be believed. These characters are some of the best that have ever been created for this format, bar none. But the animation would be nothing without the actors, of course. Steve Buscemi is excellent as Mr. Nebbercracker, while Maggie Gyllenhaal is dead-on as DJ’s wanna-be rocker chick babysitter Zee. Jason Lee shows up for a bit as well, in a funny bit as Zee’s loser rocker boyfriend Bones. And Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder is inspired as the sage movie and comic book geek the kids look to for advice. However, the movie belongs to Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, and Spencer Locke as DJ, Chowder, and Jenny Brewster, respectively. These three actors embue their roles with wit, warmth, and genuine presence that is a refreshing change of pace from the vanilla characterizations alot of animated films have featured over recent years.
Many films this summer will offer overbaked scripts written by committee or explosions and catchphrases instead of smart well-defined characters. With Monster House, one of the best films of the summer, the viewer will remember what childhood was all about and how it made us who we are. The film also provides a savvy yet brilliant treatise on how the world seemed full of adventure and magic and was a sea of endless possibilities, just waiting for us to grasp them and make them our own. Except this time…well, the adventure is real….it’s a giant house….and it’s mad as hell.
There will be sneak previews of Monster House this Saturday – check your local listings for showtimes; the film opens nationwide July 21st.