Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Monster House

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 18, 2006

Directed by Gil Kenan/screenplay by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler, story by Harmon & Schrab/featuring the voices of Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke/Columbia Pictures – ImageMovers – Amblin Entertainment

Three kids discover that the home of a scary old man who constantly warns them to “stay off his lawn” is actually alive. It’s not a house full of monsters – it’s literally a Monster House!

As Ebert and Roeper like to say (and I so rarely get to), “This…is an early review”. It’s not often that I go to nationwide sneaks anymore – it seems like a hassle to pay full price to see something that will open wide six days later, then hang around for an hour to watch something I’ve probably seen already, or don’t particularly want to see. I believe the last one I went to was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, if that gives you any idea. But my nephew really wanted to see this, and there was nothing coming out this weekend that I was really interested in, so it seemed like a good opportunity to introduce the kid to the wonderful world of early screenings. Who needs to download movies on your computer when you can see them early on the big screen (we didn’t stick around the extra hour and a half to see Click, for which I was grateful)?

Needless to say, my nephew really enjoyed Monster House. He’s 9 years old. This movie hit him right in the sweet spot. While I enjoyed it for the most part, I couldn’t help but wish I could see it through his eyes. Because while pretty much every Internet critic is raving about this thing like it’s the Second Coming, I just found it to be “pretty good”. I’m very far away from 9 years old.

The plot is relatively simple – three kids discover that a house…oh, just read the plot description above. DJ (Musso) is our lead, the slightly awkward but intelligent kid who will probably grow up to be the next Bill Gates (at least, that’s what movies like this would have you believe). Chowder (Lerner) is, let’s face it, the fat, boisterous kid who doesn’t quite seem all there. Chowder wears a cape. All the time. That should tell you all you need to know. And then there’s Jenny (Locke), the newcomer who’s sharp, witty and resourceful, and has attracted the interest of both DJ and Chowder because, you know, she’s a girl. What more do you need? All three are at that strange age where they’re almost teenagers, but aren’t quite ready to leave childhood behind. I know some adults who are still in that phase. But I digress.

Anyway, DJ’s parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard) take off somewhere (didn’t quite pick up where they were going or why) and leave the kid with teenage babysitter Zee (Gyllenhaal) for Halloween. Zee’s boyfriend Bones (Lee) likes to tease and torture DJ mercilessly, which delights Zee to no end. She’s that kinda girl. Who dates a guy named Bones anyway? When DJ and Chowder have an encounter with DJ’s across-the-street neighbor Nebbercracker (Buscemi), the stereotypical old man who seems to enjoy tormenting kids who walk across his lawn, and said encounter ends badly, the kids discover the truth about “Old Man Nebbercracker” and his spooky old house.

Of course, none of the adults or teens believe them, which is a perennial staple of such movies. I don’t know, I kind of have to side with the adults on this one. If some kid came up to me and told me that a house down the street was alive, and eats people, I’d think the kid was a good candidate for Ritalin. But just once, I’d like to see a movie where a kid tells an adult something and the adult just goes along with it without question. This movie comes close to that with a character named Skull (voiced by Jon Heder), who’s a video-game champion and comic-book freak. When they tell him the story, he kinda believes them, but he’s too busy playing his video game to help or even give advice. What was the point to his character again? Not really sure.

Naturally, the story comes down to the kids exploring the house and then fighting it themselves, thus proving that they’re capable and prepared for adulthood. Or something. Why exactly they would want to grow up, when all of the adults and teens in the movie are portrayed as clueless idiots, I’m not really sure. I have to question why nobody in the neighborhood ever thought to do anything about Nebbercracker’s old, shoddy, run-down house in the first place. I mean, that thing’s got to be driving property values down. This place is smack in the middle of a suburban yuppie neighborhood, and it looks like an abandoned shack that a serial killer would live in. At the very least, you’d think the parents would warn their kids to stay away from there as much as possible. But apparently they’re too busy with their fondue and key parties to give it much thought. These are the kind of things you think about when you watch movies like this and you’re not 9 years old.

There are a lot of things to like about Monster House, particularly if you’re a child of the ‘80’s. First-time director Kenan almost perfectly captures that kiddie-thrill-ride feel of those Spielberg – Zemeckis type movies (not coincidentally, they’re the executive producers) that helped define many childhoods. It seems like Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to make movies like that – movies that aren’t just for kids, but about kids, and entertain adults as well. Kenan and the writers are smart enough not to directly reference any of the movies that inspired them (at least, not that I noticed), as well as set the film in an indeterminate era to give it a timeless quality (when’s the last time you heard Olivia Newton-John on the radio? I expected them to break out the John Denver at some point). I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick of all the “talking animals voiced by celebrities” type movies, so seeing an animated film where the main characters are human beings was a breath of fresh air.

But movies like this are kind of like amusement parks – we love ‘em to death when we’re kids, but you go back to one 20 years later and you just get tired and bored and cranky and you want to go home. As hard as Monster House tries to recapture that kids-on-an-adventure spirit of movies like The Goonies, it’s difficult not to feel that they’re straining for laughs and thrills at times. The concept itself is a little too silly to actually be scary – a house that eats people? Come on. And because it’s a PG-rated “family film”, there’s never any real sense of danger, even when the filmmakers seem to want to think there is. Anyone who’s seen enough of these movies knows exactly where the house’s “victims” will turn up at the end. It’s not that hard to guess. OK, so this isn’t meant to be Last House on the Left, but I would’ve had more respect for the movie’s creators if they’d stuck to their guns a little more and not pussed out on its basic idea. A house that eats people is supposed to, you know, eat people.

Several of the movie’s characters don’t really go anywhere, and just seem introduced to provide an adult counterpoint to the kids’ unyielding belief. There’s the aforementioned Skull, whose limited screen time doesn’t serve any purpose, and plays like a missed opportunity to give the audience a geeky adult antihero to root for (imagine a video-game nut/comic-book nerd going up against the evil house, Ash-style, and pulling it off – the geeks in the crowd would go apeshit). O’Hara and Willard seem wasted here as DJ’s perpetually square parents – they’re hugely talented comic performances whose presence is always welcome, but the movie does very little with them. Most egregious are the two stereotypical, donut-eating bumbling cops (voiced by Kevin James and Nick Cannon) who are never the least bit funny, and in fact are just annoying every single second they’re on screen. I seriously wished the house would eat them just so I wouldn’t have to watch them anymore. It might have helped if they weren’t such nondescript, generic characters who seem to have no distinct personalities other than being “stupid cops” who enjoy abusing their authority by hassling little kids. The idea that they’re the only policemen in that town is actually a little scary – I wouldn’t want to live anywhere that I only had those two idiots to count on in an emergency. They make Barney Fife look like RoboCop.

What makes Monster House work as well as it does is, quite simply, the kids. The filmmakers were smart enough to use the voices of child actors (rather than, say, Howie Mandel or some other comedian trying to sound young) and I have to say that Musso, Lerner and Locke do a great job of carrying the movie. Each of the three kids is distinct, recognizable and likable, and we care about them a great deal more than one would expect. I thought it was important to include their names in my cast rundown above, more so than the more famous actors who are given top billing, because they are the lead characters after all, and they pretty much are the movie for all intents and purposes. If they don’t work, the movie doesn’t work, and these kids hit every note perfectly.

I also liked Buscemi’s work as the old man with a terrible secret, and Gyllenhaal pretty much nails the obnoxious yet intriguing babysitter. Lee is decent as the surly jerk Bones (though I initially thought it was Luke Wilson –I’ve never noticed before how much they sound alike), although his character is drawn in such a way that he looks almost as much like an old man as Nebbercracker. Weird. I thought the big flashback reveal of the house’s origins was really well done as well, with a Tim Burton feel and a surprising poignancy that comes completely unexpected in a kids’ movie.

When all is said and done though, I couldn’t help but wonder how much cooler this movie might have been in live-action. I know, how do you do a living, breathing house in live-action? Well, with Spielberg and Zemeckis behind him, I’m sure Kenan could have found a way. And I still think a house full of monsters is way more interesting than a house that is a monster. Maybe that’s just me. Still, Monster House manages to be reasonably entertaining for most of its 90-minute running time, and it never gets treacly or tries to “teach us a lesson”. That’s something. I have to think that this might have been better served by being released around Halloween, but if enough adults drag the kids to see it, this could easily be a summer sleeper hit. It’s not a flawless film, and it’s certainly not the Second Coming of 80’s Cinema. But if you’re 9 years old, this might be the movie of the year.

*** 7/18/06

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