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Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006)

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  • noelbotevera
    Shack attack Noel Vera Gil Kenan s Monster House is amusing enough, a mix of Steven Spielberg suburbia, Alfred Hitchcock s Rear Window, the Evil Dead
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 14, 2006
      Shack attack

      Noel Vera

      Gil Kenan's "Monster House" is amusing enough, a mix of Steven
      Spielberg suburbia, Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," the "Evil
      Dead" movies (pasteurized and homogenized, of course), bits of "To
      Kill a Mockingbird" and the Halloween sequence from Vincente
      Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis." Three kids notice some funny
      goings-on in the house across the street: the owner falls down dead
      (through in a way the fault of the kids) and various neighbors are
      either lured, rolled up or tossed into the house's open maw of a
      door, never to walk out again.

      It's a thorough immersion into the kids' worlds, and best of all
      it's done with a minimum of sticky sentiment or the kind of
      mandatory moralizing kid's animation is supposed to have, the
      medicine that's supposed to make the spoonful of sugar necessary.
      Even when we eventually learn the house's secret, it isn't the kind
      of revelation meant to uplift and instruct the child, but a sad and
      sordid story more appropriate to "The Twilight Zone" than to Cartoon
      Network. The three children--curious D.J. (Mitchel Musso), pretty if
      uptight Jenny (Spencer Locke), gross (in every sense) Chowder (Sam
      Lerner)--are distinct enough characters, their interactions
      interesting enough that you feel like following their plans and what
      becomes of them. It's not a bad way to spend ninety minutes.

      I do have reservations about the 'motion capture,' the way they have
      of photographing human actors and rendering them in animated three-
      dimensional shapes. Critics have gushed over how realistic it is,
      how it makes the characters' movements unpredictable and lifelike
      (they cite a basketball game--obvious excuse to showcase the
      technique--between D.J. and Chowder), how it adds to the
      believability of the whole thing. I suppose they're right, but if I
      wanted to watch two kids play basketball, why can't I just step out
      into the street and watch two kids play basketball? I don't share
      this thirst for greater and greater realism in animation--if they
      badly want to perfect the technique, I just as badly want to tell
      them to use a live-action camera and be done with it.

      The great animation masters--Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, Taiji
      Yabushita, Max Fleischer, Paul Grimault, among others--eschewed
      attempts at shortcut realism (in their days it would be
      called "rotoscoping"); the brilliance in their technique was in the
      way it evoked realism (or, at least in the case of Jones and
      Freleng, convincingly painful motion) without merely copying it. A
      relatively inexpressive animated face is given a quick grimace, or a
      funny catchphrase given a certain inflection, or better still
      someone given a moment of pensive silence, and character is
      illuminated like an incandescent bulb flaring into light. Difficult
      to say what I mean, but the analogy that comes to mind is how master
      puppeteers suggest personality and emotional nuance through wooden
      puppets with carved faces, through delicate gestures of the limbs
      and body. A slow nod of the head just so, and you can evoke
      tenderness, sadness, resignation; the raising of a carved hand
      thusly--held at this angle and for only a brief moment--and you
      suggest greeting, defiance, recognition. We may have gained
      something with this "motion capture;" many animators no doubt
      breathe a sigh of relief at the labor-saving possibilities, as much
      as they slaver over the visual possibilities, but at the same time
      something ineffable has been lost. Call it some aspect of
      storytelling, or imagination, or art, or call it yet another
      distinctive quality of animation as opposed to simple live-action
      filmmaking, but something has been lost.

      The "motion-captured" characters sneak into the house; some amusing
      analogs to the human body are noted (Pointing at a
      chandelier: "Look! That must be its uvula!" "Oh, so it's a GIRL
      houseĀ…"), the usual CGI chaos ensues. There's a moment of genuine
      pathos as we learn the story of Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi),
      the deceased homeowner; like Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
      it turns out that he's more misunderstood than malevolent, and that
      his link to the house is thornier and more complex than we might
      suppose. We can go further (skip the rest of the paragraph if you
      plan to see the picture) and say that the house is like a monster
      equivalent of a uterus, and that Nebbercracker is like a fetus
      staying decades past term: the umbilical cord that binds them now
      poisons them, tainting what should be fond memories of each other
      with overprotective paranoia on the part of the house, guilt and
      claustrophobic resentment on the part of the man. Not perhaps the
      most profound treatment of a monster-victim relationship I know, but
      surprisingly sophisticated in a kiddie cartoon.

      Unfortunately at the picture's end the action descends to the level
      of a, well, kiddie cartoon: house on legs, steam shovels, mayhem
      galore; the climax involves a series of complicated acts of heroism
      familiar to anyone who plays video games (take MacGuffin, shimmy up
      crane, drop into chimney). The movie, just starting to get
      interesting with its macabre version of undying love, retreats to
      childhood's lust for zoom and boom. "Monster House" for all the
      skill that went into making it and all the promise of becoming a
      genuine gothic drama, ends up regressing into just another summer
      flick.

      (First published in Businessworld, 9/8/06)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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