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Monster House

Halloween is right around the corner (actually, by the time you read this, we may have turned that corner and sped halfway down the block.) For many, this is a time to watch the indefinable “Halloween Movie”; not usually a movie about Halloween, but any of the scary or blood soaked flicks ranging from Bela Lugosi in Dracula to The Exorcist to the hundreds of splatter movies with teens in their underwear escaping a knife/axe/chainsaw/hook wielding maniac. Frankly, dripping (or gushing) blood makes me ill so I don’t have a large number of Halloween appropriate movies, but I enjoy a fun family-friendly scare, and the recent DVD release Monster House fits that bill nicely. I always felt that, as many positive things were going on in Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express, the “motion-capture” animated Christmas movie from 2005, one thing that I could never get over is how creepy everyone looked. Motion capture has real actors performing an entire movie on a blank set covered in sensors which are then, magically, turned into animated characters. There is more to it than that, I’m sure, but hell if I know how it works. Unfortunately, “creepy” and “Christmas movie” don’t work so well together, but “creepy” and “Halloween” go together like peanut butter and fried baloney on Elvis’ dinner plate, so here comes Monster House, executive-produced by Zemeckis and some guy named Steven Spielberg.

DJ (motion-captured and voiced by Mitchell Musso) lives across the street from the neighbor from Hell, literally. Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) yells, threatens, and intimidates neighborhood kids away from his property, keeping any and all balls, kites, and bicycles that find their way onto his lawn. His property, a slightly ominous, ramshackle, spooky old house direct from central casting seems to be alternately reaching out to Nebbercracker and menacing everyone else. During a period when DJ’s slightly dense and distracted parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara) leave him under the care of babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), DJ works with his best pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) and hyper confident new girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) to determine if the house is actually alive and eating up things….and people. The local cops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) don’t believe that the house is trapping victims and Zee’s rocker/stoner boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) taunts the house and DJ’s fear to his own peril.

DJ and his relationship with Chowder, particularly their competition for the puberty-igniting attention of Jenny, anchors the film. They are an appealing trio, well voiced by the respective actors and pulling off the rare feat of being occasionally excitable without becoming annoying. There is quite a bit of humor, courtesy of pros like Lee, James, Willard and O’Hara, but primarily from the kids themselves. If their relationship and timing doesn’t work, this type of movie doesn’t work. They also help build a good amount of tension and chills without relying too much on the “jumping bogeyman” effect.

As Pixar has shown the world, it’s not the animation stupid, it’s the script. Monster House has a good script for about the first three-quarters of the movie, only breaking down in a silly final act. I was disappointed because up until that point it had been a fun, spooky ride. The end was just loud and turns the menacing house (a real fear for lots of youngsters) into the real estate equivalent of the guy with the rain slicker in I Know What You Did Last Summer. But for the first 65 minutes, the kids’ relationship holds center stage and this movie rises above the typical animated fare of animals in goofy situations.

Back to the creepy look of motion-capture. Novice director Gil Kenan (his resume lists this movie and absolutely nothing else) wisely avoids trying to make everyone look hyper realistic and gives everyone a slightly elongated appearance. Heads are a little too big for their bodies, gangly kids are ganglier than normal, fat kids (and cops) are a little rounder than warranted. The creepy (though not unpleasant) look of everyone adds to the atmosphere that Kenan brings to the movies best scenes.

As far as animated “scary” movies go, this one is a credit to the genre. Weaknesses in the end scenes bring it down a few notches, but it has the ability to entertain and elicit of a few screeches and gasps from both adults and kids. A word of warning: There are a few intense moments and an easily frightened younger child may rue staying up late to watch this DVD. For everyone else, grab the leftover Halloween loot and enjoy. This movie did not dominate at the box-office in the summer and for the initial release gets only a one-disc release with a moderate amount of extras. There is a very nice “filmmaker commentary,” anchored by Director Gil Kenan. He speaks intelligently about the movie and has a lot of interesting comments about the look, the casting, and the filmmaking process. In an odd move, Kenan is joined in the commentary by various (I couldn’t tell how many) other people involved in the production. I don’t know who they were or what they did, but I got the idea several of them were producers. They were never introduced and it sounded like instead of watching the movie and making comments (a typical commentary,) snippets of interviews they did were played over relevant parts of the movie. They should have left Kenan alone to do the commentary, he’s a sharp, well-spoken guy.

The disc includes seven two-to-four minute behind-the-scenes type features. They primarily deal with the technical aspects of filming a motion capture animated film. It is pretty interesting to see the kids and other actors running around in wet suits with 50 electronic dots glued to their faces. The segments are very short and provide a basic overview of the different areas, rather than an in-depth review possibly preferred by certain aficionados. I think the family market was considered here.

The opening seen of the movie, where Mr. Nebbercracker takes the tricycle of the little girl, Eliza, is shown in a detailed extra. The viewer gets to see the scene in five different stages, filmed storyboard to finished movie and another view that shows all five stages on the screen at the same time. Using the “angle” key on the remote, you can switch back and forth between the views while the extra is playing. It’s pretty cool, although Eliza’s “la, la, la” singing will get on your nerves if you watch all five views right in a row.

The final few extras include a picture gallery showing the early conceptual art, character sculptures, and the like. It’s something you click through using your arrow keys; not a thrill, but if you are artistic, you might be interested in the many drawings. There is also a DVD link that when placed in your computer sends you to a web page with wallpaper, a few mediocre games, and a few other knick-knacks of interest to young children and no one else.

As far as single disc animated movies go, this one is pretty typical in amount and quality of extras. As with the movie itself, it’s good, but not great. A worthy addition to the Halloween rotation, but nothing you have to bump to the head of list.