Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.
I think there are plenty of kids who like to be scared. Look through the Best Animated Feature nominees and there’s a surprising number of them with horror elements. The only one I had left is Monster House, which is also one of the most obvious horror-themed kids movies in the 14 years of this award. After all, it’s about a freaking monster house that comes alive and eats people.
That is pretty much the story here. Barely pre-teen DJ (Mitchel Musso) lives across the street from Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), the neighborhood crank. Any toy that winds up on Nebbercracker’s lawn is immediately confiscated by the old man, who continually yells at all of the children in the neighborhood to leave him and his house alone. This becomes an issue for DJ and his friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) when Chowder’s new basketball winds up on Nebbercracker’s lawn. DJ goes to fetch it, is confronted by the old man, and as DJ attempts to make his escape, Nebbercracker has a heart attack and collapses.
Naturally all of this happens when DJ’s parents are out of town and he is being overseen by Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his punk babysitter. DJ gets a call from the house that night—the empty house. Elizabeth and her boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) naturally don’t believe him, but Bones is pretty sure that there’s something wrong with Nebbercracker. The town legend is that years ago, the old man was married, fattened up his wife, and ate her. He also relates the story of losing his kite on Nebbercracker’s lawn as a kid. When he leaves, he sees his kite in the house’s doorway. He goes to retrieve it, and the house eats him.
That’s actually something worth commenting on—the house’s ability to change appearance and come to life. The front windows (naturally) become eyes and the front door turns into a mouth. The posts on the front porch turn into teeth and the carpet in the front hall becomes a tongue. There’s even a weird chandelier in the front hall that becomes the house’s uvula—an important plot point later in the film.
DJ and Chowder save a girl of roughly their own age named Jenny (Spencer Locke) the next day, which happens to be Halloween. Both of the boys are immediately smitten with her, and act to save her when the house attempts to eat her. The kids call the police (Kevin James and Nick Cannon, who naturally don’t believe them) and plot against the house. With the advice of local video game legend “Skull” Skulinski (Jon Heder), they determine that the house is animated by the recently departed spirit of Mr. Nebbercracker. They also decide that it’s up to them to destroy the house by somehow getting inside and destroying its “heart,” the furnace in the basement.
There’s quite a bit more to the film after the point where the kids decide what they’re going to do, but Monster House is good enough that running through that part of the plot would be a disservice to it. This is a film that has a story that is obviously horror/fantasy related, but that is internally consistent from open to close. It also gets the kids right. Both DJ and Chowder are at that awkward age just ahead of puberty where kid stuff is still fun and interesting but girls are just starting to be interesting, too. Jenny, roughly the same age, is a little more mature, and that’s right in line with reality as well. Writers Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler put in the time to make their characters more than easy caricatures or broad kid-ish pastiches. Sure, the adults are two-dimensional at best, but that’s acceptable in a movie designed for a younger audience. The main characters come across as real and with real motivations.
I also like the animation here. This is no doubt due to the film being done with motion capture, having the actors really act out most of their scenes and then having them digitally rendered. This are people who move and talk like real people, and on that front, Monster House is something of a technical marvel. In fact, it highlights the main issue I have with the film: for as beautifully done as the animation is, I found it surprisingly ugly. I genuinely don’t like the look of the characters here at all.
That’s a significant problem for a film in which every frame features something I find visually unpleasant. Other than that, though, I don’t have anything to say as a negative here. Monster House contains some good scares for younger kids and pre-teens and a fun story for the adults who watch it with them. The only thing modern kids might object to, in fact, is that there’s a sense that Monster House takes place in the ‘80s and not in a more modern world. Then again, it’s entirely possible that most kids will miss this entirely (and I’m basing that mostly on the video games they play in the film and the lack of cell phones) and won’t really care even if they do.
I liked this a little more than I thought I would. With better art, this would rank as one of the better Best Animated Feature nominations I’ve watched, and I’ve seen almost all of them.
Why to watch Monster House: An animated film with some genuine scares for kids.
Why not to watch: The animation is great, but the art is pretty ugly.