It is thirty minutes in before Monster House wakes up and realizes it’s an animated film. That’s when the house first starts hulking out, and it’s the first time the film does anything that couldn’t have been rather easily accomplished by a live action movie with a capable pre-teen kid cast. There’s an instantly classic family movie buried just below the surface of Monster House, unfortunately this great script has been brought to screen using trendy computer animation instead of more appropriate big budget effects mixed with realism. But this story is too good to be killed by unneeded animating and while Monster House may not be the classic it could have been, as a family film it’s still really good.
It’s only a few minutes after the departure of DJ’s parents that he kills his neighbor, old man Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi). Nebbercracker has been terrorizing the neighborhood’s kids for generations, and he has a heart attack while engaging in a tirade against DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) for stepping on his lawn. Nebbercracker’s death is only the beginning of DJ’s bad day. It’s Halloween, and apparently Nebbercracker’s rickety old house isn’t pleased at DJ’s part in its owner’s death. Nebbercracker’s house is alive and angry. With his parents out of town, DJ and his friends can only watch in horror as the house starts devouring neighborhood toys, pets, and eventually police officers that trod on its lawn.
Though much of the computer animation in Monster House is by today’s standards somewhat sub par, the look of the house itself is stunning; a beautiful, nightmarish dream that looks like it might have fallen right out of the head of Tim Burton. It’s a wonderfully alive, fiercely cinematic set piece; an effect so brilliantly conceived that a lesser film might have been content to rely upon merely the house’s toothy appearance as justification for the entire film’s existence.
That’s not the case here, Monster House comes with a script every bit its set piece’s equal. It’s not just high concept, it’s high content too with well drawn kid characters facing realistic kid dilemmas talking the way that kids actually talk. The kids’ interaction is what carries the movie, as DJ and his buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner) joke about the possibility of impending puberty and consider for the first time that maybe they’re in to girls. It’s right on par with a lot of other family fantasy classics, reminiscent of movies like Goonies or even E.T.. It has a fantastic, quick witted pace to it that carries the story right along with or without that amazingly cool monster house set piece roaming around in it. It’s not only the kids they’ve gotten right either, but the ancillary adult characters as well. Nick Cannon does a hilarious job as the voice of a rookie cop investigating the children’s claims of a man-eating domicile, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is the perfect, disinterested babysitter.
This is a great fantasy story, the kind of movie kids dream about in their back yards, the kind of story that could, as Goonies did back in its day, fire up the imagination of younger viewers for years to come. Come on, you remember the first time you saw Goonies as a kid. Admit it: you rushed out and started drawing treasure maps, pretended your backyard was a big adventure with your friends, maybe even practiced the truffle shuffle. Monster House has exactly that same kind of potential, and comes close to being just that kind of movie.
Yet a big part of the magic of a movie like Goonies or even E.T. was that it felt like you were watching real kids on a real adventure. By making Monster House computer animated, it loses that. The movie doesn’t look or feel like something that might happen across the street at any moment, the animation keeps it at arms length when the kids in the audience should fell like they’re able to leap through the movie screen. Most of the better CGI movies we’ve seen so far all center around characters that couldn’t exist in a live action movie. This is a movie about a bunch of kids hanging out and getting in to trouble. There’s no reason for it to be animated, even the house could have been rather beautifully realized through a combination of computer and practical effects in a live action setting. If the house is stunning in an animated film, it could have been even more so in a real world setting.
Monster House is a good movie and I hope families turn out to see it, so I hate to get too hung up on what they didn’t do instead of the great things the movie does do. But it might be nice if someone involved with the film would simply answer this question: Why is this movie animated? Is it because CGI movies have made a mint at the box office? Is computer animation cheaper than live action? Were they simply to lazy to bother with child actors? Whatever the reason, Monster House just misses out on being an instant classic because of it.