Thursday, February 22, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Monster House’

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Monster House is a movie that was clearly a lot of work to make but has imbued into its very bones a sense of play. It remembers what it’s like to be a kid when it feels the world is out to either embarrass you or squash your fun. Even better, the movie never feels the need to talk down to kids.

Gil Kenan’s motion-captured feature debut is as fun as it is stylish. Refreshingly, Kenan and the animators at ImageMovers have no interest in giving us an animated film trying to look natural. As a result, the world in Monster House is slightly exaggerated as if we saw it through the mind’s eye of a child.

monster house
Left to Right: D.J. (Mitchel Musso) and Nebbercracker’s House (voiced by Kathleen Turner) in Monster House

The script by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pam Pettler infuses a sense of anarchy similar to that of Richard Donner’s The Goonies. Together with Kenan’s direction, Monster House unfurls with childish glee as the kids in the story face down a haunted house across the street. It’s an old story from every childhood, the place shrouded in mystery and folklore known only to the neighborhood’s children. Or maybe it isn’t a house; perhaps it’s an apartment, a place in the woods, or maybe just the basement.

Either way, it’s foreboding and off-limits, and for some reason, as a child, that makes the place all the more enticing for the likes of D.J. (voiced by Mitchel Musso) and his best friend Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner). That the house is where old man Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) lives. Toys have a habit of disappearing once they drift into old man Nebbercracker’s yard.

Even D.J.’s babysitter Elizabeth (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhall) and her boyfriend Bones (voiced by Jason Lee) have their own stories about the house. However, Elisabeth is convinced that most of their fears are unfounded. On the other hand, D.J., Chowder, and their newfound friend Jenny (voiced by Spencer Locke) know it’s more complicated than that.

monster house
Left to Right: Chowder (Lerner), D.J. (Musso) and Jenny (Locke)

The house is alive. Part of the fun of Monster House is how the house is animated and how the characters breathlessly try to talk over one another. Kenan blends a sort of realism with the fantastical that lends his movie a distinct charm and personality. The filmmakers have created a world that feels lived in while also allowing the world to feel just a tad exaggerated. 

Motion capture animation is a type of filmmaking that I’ve never really grown all that fond of. But Monster House feels different. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the few motion capture movies that comes from an original idea instead of an adaptation. But I think it’s because Kenan and ImageMovers made a conscious decision to make the movie feel as if it wasn’t taking place in our reality. So together with capturing the essence of the actor’s performances, they sidestep the uncanny valley effect by making the faces longer or rounder than they would be in real life.

The result is a fun movie about three kids battling a possessed house that reveals itself to be a tragic Burton-esque love story between Nebbercracker and his wife Constance (voiced by Kathleen Turner), the Giantess at a circus. Harmon, Schrab, and Pettler peel back the macabre layers of the house to get a woman so wounded by hate that it is hard for her to feel anything else in return. 

Kenan shrewdly had Turner play the house in the motion capture. She crawled around on the floor, interacting with the other actors as they played out the scene on the black box-style stage, all in their wetsuits and hundreds of reference dots glued to their faces. In addition, the sound designers went to a real house and set up recording equipment and then tore the house down to mimic the sounds the house would make when it came alive. Then they mixed those sounds with Turner’s own screams and howls to make both the sound of the house and the character richer and fuller.

monster house
Nebbercracker (voiced by Buscemi)

Buscemi, who has long been a rare character actor whose name is known by the masses, is perfect as Nebbercracker. Nebbercracker is an extension of the type of offbeat characters Buscemi made his name playing and still plays. With motion capture able to render actors’ movements and facial expressions, Buescmi’s eyes, which have always been expressive, become all the more so in the animator’s hands.

The climax of Monster House is filled with pathos. The relationship between D.J., Chowder, and Jenny slowly matures into something new. The kids don’t change overnight, but by the end, they are not the same as they were when the movie started either.

monster house
Left to Right: Jenny (Locke), D.J. (Musso) and Chowder (Lerner)

I’ve talked a lot about the look and feel of Monster House more than the story because the story while involving and emotional, is pretty simple. It’s how Monster House comes alive that fascinates me. For example, ImageMovers and Kenan worked with Xavier Perez Grobet, the cinematographer, and animated camera movements to give Monster House a cinematic feel.

Monster House is filled with compassion and imagination. A fairy tale for kids, the movie takes the fears of being a child on the precipice of puberty and cleverly deploys it into a story about loss and love. It does this while finding time to understand that sometimes the things that scare us are more human and mundane than we thought. 

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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