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Quick, think of the two biggest directors of the 1980s? Got it? I’m willing to bet one of those names is Steven Spielberg, who was already a household name by the time that decade started, directed and producing huge hits, one after another. Depending on your taste though, the other name on that list is probably George Lucas, but perhaps you thought of the Back to the Future series and came up with Robert Zemeckis. Good for you. That’s where we’re headed. Spielberg and Zemeckis worked together on the BttF films and after too many years apart, finally came together again for the first time since 1990 … and while maybe many hoped the collaboration would yield another big live-action adventure, that wasn’t the case. In fact, it wasn’t live-action at all, but rather a children’s animated movie.
In truth, the two had been behind a number of successful kid’s movies already, with their films acclaimed for their creative inspiration. Perhaps it was just inevitable that they came together to back another, and that it was a computer-animated film, only the logical next step. That said, neither directed the movie, though their influence is clear. That duty went to Gil Kenan, in his feature length debut, a young up-and-coming director whose 10-minute live-action-stop-motion film called The Lark earned him a meeting with Zemeckis, and then an offer to helm his next project, Monster House, a film that would earn the first-timer an Oscar nomination for best animated film. Nice start. Let’s take a look.
THE STORY: Dustin J. “DJ” Walters (voiced by Mitchel Musso) lives across from an elderly curmudgeon named Horace Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) and notices that whatever lands on or is near his yard, he takes. When DJ’s best friend Charles “Chowder” (voiced by Sam Lerner) loses a basketball to Nevvercracker’s lawn and the two try to get it back, the old man freaks on them and has a heart attack trying to stop them from coming onto the property. This starts a chain of events where the boys do some sleuthing, learning of other things ‘consumed’ by the house. They become convinced that the place is is fact not a home at all … but a monster that eats people. Looking at the place, that’s not a stretch.
Naturally, nobody, including the police, believe them, so they hatch a plan to sneak inside, which has its own consequences, but does seem to confirm their suspicions, especially with what they find within … the body of Nebbercracker’s wife. Now the boys must make it out alive, but there are still plenty of surprises inside and out, and a revelation of just what and who this monster house is, making for some further adventures.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While the story is really good, combining smarts, scares, and enough bits for both kids and adults to enjoy, the animation is the real winner with a terrific art style that feels just enough like fantasy and grounded enough to keep invested as to feel like a children’s book come to life. Notice the details in the environments, especially inside the monster house, and the clever way the architecture is used to simulate a living breathing person. It’s a wonder to look at and treats its intended audience with plenty to inspire imagination beyond bright colors and goofy characters.
A GREAT MOMENT: The thing about Monster House that impresses, and a lesson that many animated kid’s movies either miss completely or overdo, is to give the story heart. That means more than a manipulated twist, but layering in reasons that give characters depth, and with Monster House, there is a lot that makes this impactful, including the relationships between the children themselves, but even more so with Horace.
Avoiding spoilers, there is much about Nebbercracker that makes for a great children’s story villain, from his age to his mannerisms to what appears to be his disgust with kid’s altogether. He’s the monster living in the monster house so to speak. That the movie handles this with such nuance is one thing already, but that, in a delightful and clever moment, it also dismantles it, make it truly great. That’s great storytelling.
THE TALLY: Monster House is a fun and intelligent animated movie that features a great cast of voice talent, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kevin James, Kathleen Turner, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard among others. Using performance capture technology pioneered by Zemeckis on his previous movie The Polar Express, the film has a lively, fluid movement to it that gives it a unique feel. Being produced by Spielberg and Zemeckis, it also spans a broad spectrum of emotions, from some really dark horror to straight-up out-loud giggles and better yet, understands the teens in the story, not treating them like paper-thin versions of what adults think they are like. A real one-of-a-kind thrill, Monster House is a gem of a good time. It’s what to watch.