Every so often, the experience of watching the film is better than the film itself. “Monster House” is such an example, but the film is pretty darn good as well.
DJ (Mitchel Musso) lives across the street from a spooky old house owned by Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). DJ sits in his bedroom, spying on the house; every time anyone comes near, Nebbercracker comes outside, steals the kid’s toy and scares them away. As Halloween approaches, DJ’s parents leave for a convention and Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the babysitter arrives. She couldn’t be less interested in anything DJ is doing, so long as it doesn’t affect her. She invites her boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) over and they start making out. As events transpire, DJ asks his friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) to come over and they keep a vigil. Late in the afternoon, Jenny (Spencer Locke) goes from house to house selling candy, raising money for her school. She has a unique hook; buy the candy to prevent your house from getting TP’ed. As she approaches the Nebbercracker house, DJ and Chowder rush out to save her and she becomes an ally in their quest to protect the neighborhood. They realize they have to stop the Monster House and set out to end its reign of terror.
I can see “Monster House” becoming a Halloween perennial. Set during the days leading to that holiday, it has the spooky images, action and adventure that will appeal to the ‘tween set who share the age of the main characters. This is the film 10 to 13 year olds will watch with their parents because they aren’t old enough for the classics like “Psycho” or “Halloween”. That said, it is probably too scary for much younger children. But this makes it all the more attractive to the ‘tween set and adults in the house. It is an animated film with some meat, some scary bits, holding the attention of many different ages.
Every kid of this age has had some sort of experience with a spooky house, neighbor, something that gave them the creeps. “Monster House” captures this feeling brilliantly. As DJ watches the house, he notices strange things happening, but because of his age, no one listens. He has to take matters into his own hands and enlists the aid of Chowder and Jenny. The relationship between the three is portrayed in a fairly realistic manner. Even though DJ and Chowder are best friends, and very similar, they aren’t immune to having disagreements and fights. Generally, these fights are over the most important things in the world, who hated Mexican food first, for instance, and to an adult simply appear silly. But this makes their relationship seem even more realistic. The most important things to kids often don’t appear very frightening.
The animation is very good. Using the same process used in “Polar Express”, director Gil Keenan and producer Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”, “Polar Express”) capture the actual actor acting the role, wearing special clothes and computer pieces. Later they use computers to animate it, using the actor’s movements and facial expressions to make the characters seem more real. The difference between this film and “Polar Express”, which I found creepy, is that the animation is more stylized. In “Polar”, everyone looked like the shell of a human, like their body had been robbed and the aliens took everything inside leaving the skin behind. In “Monster”, the characters don’t look like real people, they look like cartoons, giving each character a unique look. The main advantage of using this technique in “Monster” seems to be the facial expressions are more realistic.
Throughout the film, the camera moves with the action, something fairly new to animated films. For instance, when Jenny approaches the house, the sidewalks start to pop up, leading her and her wagon to the front door, the mouth of the house. As the sidewalk pieces move, the camera swirls around them, following their progress, as they shift and weave, sweeping around Jenny and her wagon. This type of movement helps to create a dynamic look for the film, making it appear more like a live action feature.
While the animation is great and the film is fun to watch, the real revelation here is the new projection technique. Many theaters are showing the film in digital projection, which isn’t a new thing, but these same digital screens are showing the film in 3-D. Yes, you have to wear glasses, but the 3-D image is crystal clear. No more ghost line around the image. The picture is simply stunning, giving the animated image a depth of field you simply can’t get any other way. The 3-D itself is flawless and represents a true advance in the technology. And the fact that you no longer have to go to an IMAX screen to see the 3-D version is a benefit. If a studio is able to show the film in a process on more screens, the process will be used more and more and become more advanced with time and practice.
The fact that we don’t have to watch this on an IMAX screen is, I think, a benefit. I saw “Polar Express” on an IMAX screen and it was fun to watch the film in 3-D, but because the screen is so large, it is difficult to maintain the 3-D effect. Many of the images had those tell-tale lines around them.
Shortly after the first few previews, a title card came up instructing us to put on our glasses. Then we watched a trailer for Disney’s “Meet the Robinsons”, their new non-Pixar computer animated film which will be presented in Disney 3-D. It looked great. But the biggest surprise was that Disney is re-releasing “The Nightmare before Christmas” in the new format this October. This should be an exciting event, to watch the Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s masterpiece in an entirely new way, a way which will hopefully enhance the image and not detract.
Who knows. Maybe “Monster House” will become a classic just like “Nightmare before Christmas”.