Actually, I Rather Enjoyed My Stay
Monster House / Kerry Benton
Film Reviews | July 21, 2006 | Comments ()
I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I’m just a little worried that I might have cracked a mirror or built up a little bad karma somewhere. As I sat in the theater making blind notes in my Moleskine notebook, I was gripped by a sudden and unmistakable feeling of fear. A cold finger of doubt and uncertainty crept into my world.
“I’m supposed to write a review for Pajiba,” I thought. “What if I can’t be harsh? What if the movie’s quite good?” It’s rage and fury I’m best known for, after all, not praise and warmth. Nonetheless, my quavers bode well for you, O viewer, because truly, Monster House proved to be an entertaining and well-executed film.
The basic premise of a haunted house is probably as old as the invention of the words for “haunted” and “house” in ancient Sumerian or whatever. In Monster House, however, the titular domicile, owned by viciously mean-spirited old man Nebercracker (Steve Buscemi), offers up a bit more. The house itself is a remarkably anthropomorphized creature that really, ah, stands up in its own right. Neighborhood kids D.J., Chowder, and Jenny get to do a lot more than just stumble through the scary old crib, which made for a substantially more pleasant 90 minutes. Considering that this appears to be the first major production for both director and screenwriting team, I’d call it an auspicious beginning.
Now, as a rule, I’m a bit skeptical of motion-capture technology because, paradoxically, I think it sometimes comes off as less natural than good classical animation. I must concede, however, that the technology may have finally caught up with expectations. With very few exceptions (and trifling ones at that), the characters are very natural, even vibrant. Each one is fully realized and well cast, from Kevin James’ bumbling cop to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s so-totally-over-this metal-chick babysitter. Jon Heder (of Napoleon Dynamite fame and various ignominy ever since) even managed not to make me angry, which is saying something.
I suppose the crux for any kids’ movie lies in whether the kids will like it and not be either scared or damaged by the experience. I’m probably less than perfectly qualified to gauge the fear quotient or what have you; after all, I was somewhat less than stouthearted as a child (the fire scene in Bambi freaked me right out, and don’t even get me started on Gremlins). For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear any crying or whimpering from the kids in my theater, and a lot of them seemed pretty young.
Then again, it’s probably nearly as important that adults not be bored to tears when they take the kids out to the cinema. It’s always seemed to me that parents grow numb to a lot of inanity, presumably from hundreds of repeated viewings of kids’ shows coupled with a kind of love I, being childless, really just can’t fathom. I feel comfortable saying that those filters won’t really even be necessary with Monster House. I heard the adults laughing every bit as much as the kids (myself included). I suppose many of them have suffered through the endless parade of talking animal movies of late, and I can only imagine how welcome this respite must have been. Beyond that, it’s always fun looking for (or maybe just inventing) references to other movies — I found a Sarlacc Pit and at one point saw something that bore a striking resemblance to the No-Face from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Really, the only gripe I have is that I felt pretty strange walking out of a Halloween-themed movie into the 90-degree swelter of a July evening in Atlanta. Maybe kids don’t care, but my moods are a bit seasonal and, as much as I enjoyed this film, I think I might have been even more receptive in, say, late September or October. Perhaps school and homework offer too much competition or something, but it still seems strange.
The bottom line is that Monster House is fun for the kids without constantly resorting to crudity or outright silliness, is stocked with solid, well-acted characters, and isn’t an ordeal that parents (or older siblings) will have to suffer through. I consider that high praise, particularly given some of the alternatives.
Kerry Benton is a film critic for Pajiba. You can see him in action as “k” on The Supernicety.