It’s possible that regular readers missed out on 2006′s Monster House. It’s an “animated” movie which, in America, carries the stigma of being “for kids.” Kids are definitely the audience for this film, but only those who find talking cars and tap-dancing penguins sissy stuff. There are some really frightening moments in , much tension and even emotional truths. It borders on the edge of greatness.
Greatness is denied it because of its use of motion capture technology. That’s not a big surprise given that Robert Zemeckis is one of the Executive Producers (along with some guy named Spielberg). Zemeckis has always been at the forefront of movie-making technology, but these last few years he has been totally obsessed with motion capture, using it for Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. The technique doesn’t work any better in Monster House, but, unlike those three Zemeckis films, the story and direction almost manage to overcome the dead, flat movement of most of the characters. (I’ve only seen two instances of motion capture proving effective: Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and the aliens in District 9, and I give more credit to the animators who tweaked the details than I do the technology. This doesn’t bode well for Spielberg’s forthcoming Tintin film.)
The story is simple enough: In a bright, bland, modern housing tract, a young boy –DJ to his frieds–lives across the street from a decaying old house, a relic from a far-gone era. The steps are crooked, the shingles ragged and the porch swayed like Rosinante’s back. The owner of said house is a cranky, scary old man named Nebbercracker, a pinched little man with a perpetual scowl, few teeth and a wardrobe limited to trousers, suspenders and a wife-beater.
Nebbercracker has a mania about people, especially kids, getting on his front lawn, yelling and screaming and taking away their toys when they transgress. All of which means that as soon as DJ’s parents leave him alone for the weekend, he is, one way or the other, g0ing to end up on that lawn.
After Nebbercracker suddenly collapses in his front yard while railing at Dj and his best friend, Chowder, for retrieving their basketball, he is taken to the hospital…and the house is left on its own.
That night, DJ begins to get phone calls from the house. With Chowder, DJ sets out to investigate the house. They get some unexpected help from Jenny, a girl their own age who is selling cookies in the neighborhood.
The house, it seems, is actually alive, and ver, very hungry. The adventurous trio soon find themselves in the creatures digestive track, along with all the toys that Nebbercracker accumulated over the years.
When DJ, Chowder and Jenny escape, the house uproots itself and gives chase. It’s a fabulously monstrous image, as the house stalks them to a construction sight where the kids attempt to destroy it with a crane and dynamite.
There’s a lot more texture to the story than I’ve summarised above, some nice emotional connections between the characters, and a creepy yet touching back story.
The design for the picture is inconsistent, ranging from excellent (the titular house, Nebbercracker) to appealing (Chowder, Zee the babysitter) to bland and a little creepy in the wrong way (DJ, Bones). But what really does them in is the motion capture technology.
One of the 12 principles of animation that were distilled long ago by Disney animators out of their long experience, is exaggeration. That doesn’t mean that everything is over the top, just that animated movement is different from real movement. Though real movement looks fine in the real world, when attached to an animated character the movement looks soft and indirect. I find it most glaring in the hands and arms where their movement looks unnatural, almost like the puppet arms in a Gerry Anderson puppet show. The fingers don’t cirl, the wrists seem to float. But it is also apparent in the torso and head movements. Even the best mo-cap needs to be tweaked hard by real animators; I’m guessing that there wasn’t enough time or money to tweak this film as hard as necessary.
Some of the close-up acting is fine; Chowder, Zeem, Nebbercracker and one of the cops come off best. Others, like DJ and Jenny are bland, whiile DJ’s parents, in their two brief appearances, have such minimal animation their faces are less expressive than Davey & Goliath‘s. It’s no accident that the best animated character in the film is rhe house. Hard to mo-cap a house with two large arms walking down the highway. (Even the animation on the house seems off a it, like they had to do it quick and dirty, without the time to refine it. Using terrific animators is what saves the producer’s heinie.)
Fortunately, director Gil Kenan’s storytelling skills are first rate, and the screenplay by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler hits all the right notes. There’s a lot of tension in the buildup, and the house is genuinely scary, inside and out.
There’s not a drop of blood in the film, and even the apparent deaths are resolved. But given the state of horror films today, I found this “kid’s” film far more satisfying than most of the big studio releases of the last four or five years. Maybe we can talk Kenan and company into turning their attention to, oh, say, the stories of a certain Mr. Lovecraft.