Now we’re getting somewhere. Monster House plays like a living, breathing entity: it’s loaded with humor, spirit, scares, and even has an oddly touching side. This is full-fledged get-lost-in-the-story material and it’s easy to do so since nearly everyone grew up with that scary-looking house in the neighborhood that seemingly stared at you whenever you walked by. Monster House will undoubtedly feel nostalgic for adults and downright terrifying for some children. The film is wisely being marketed as good fun, but especially discerning parents should be told that Monster House takes the PG rating about as far as it can go.
As the film opens we meet DJ (Musso), a perfectly ordinary kid who is very fascinated with the creepy house across the street. With the telescope in his bedroom he has watched the house literally “eat” things. The house is owned by Nebbercracker (Buscemi), the grumpiest of grumpy old men who threatens anyone who trespasses on his lawn with death. When DJ’s basketball accidentally winds up on his lawn, he, with friend Chowder (Sam Lerner), decides to push their luck and retrieve the ball. Through a sequence of events that I don’t dare spoil, DJ, Chowder, a new friend Jenny (Locke) wind up inside the house – and the fun is just beginning.
Much has been made about Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg acting as executive producers. The word is that they are both big fans of newcomer director Gil Kenan, and it’s for good reason. Kenan keeps the film operating at a breathless clip while never hesitating to pause for cutting comedy. The screenplay by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler is one of the leanest and most efficient of recent memory. The pacing is excellent and the characters well-developed and realistic.
Zemeckis’ input is clearly apparent in the animation process. It is the same technique as that of Zemeckis’ own The Polar Express (a timeless, gorgeous film), and those who had issues with the execution in The Polar Express will likely have the same complaints here. But the fact of the matter is that the feel is original and lends itself perfectly to the spooks and frights inside Nebbercracker’s house. The house simply would not be as menacing had it been endlessly airbrushed and perfected using the traditional CGI process. The film has a rigid, uncertain look and feel – and it pays off.
While the timing of the release might not be so great (a Halloween movie in July?), this is truly an experience not to be missed, especially theatrically. I reiterate that the film is likely to be stern stuff for the real little ones, but adults and kids over ten will likely have as scary of a good time as one can have at any animated film. In such a lackluster summer, it feels somewhat revolutionary to see a film with backbone that can reach such a broad range of age groups. Monster House is the most pleasant surprise of the year and will undoubtedly wind up on a certain list of mine at the end of the year.
*As a side note, Monster House will be playing in 3D at selected theaters throughout the country. I have yet to see that version of the film, but I can tell you that Monster House seems tailor-made for a thrilling 3D experience.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 91 Minutes
Rating: PG for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor and brief language.
Theatrical Release: July 21, 2006
Directed by: Gil Kenan
Written by: Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab & Pamela Pettler.
Cast: Steve Buscemi (voice), Maggie Gyllenhaal (voice), Jon Heder (voice), Kevin James (voice), Jason Lee (voice), Sam Lerner (voice)