They say every town has one. That dilapidated, creepy old house down the block that is, of course, haunted. 'Monster House' knows this superstition well, and exploits it for all its worth. I'm surprised a movie like this wasn't made sooner -- what could be more perfect than an all-CGI spookfest about a truly alive, possessed haunted house? It's an idea that probably couldn't be made successfully in any form except animation, and 'Monster House' does the concept proud, creating an visually inventive thrill ride just innocent enough to be safe for the little ones, but witty and mature enough to keep the adults entertained.
Young DJ (Mitchel Musso) always knew there was something strange about the old house across the street. But after its owner, the cantankerous Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) dies unexpectedly, the house no longer has its caretaker -- and becomes a living, breathing entity on its own. After friends and neighbors begin to disappear -- including two local cops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) and the boyfriend (Jason Lee) of DJ's babysitter Z (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- DJ enlists his pals Chowder (Sam Lerner) and Jenny (Spencer Locke) to learn the secret that keeps the house alive. Suddenly, they find themselves in a hair-raising battle with an unstoppable evil and must save their neighborhood from total destruction.
'Monster House' garnered the most attention for its pioneering use of motion-capture technology. First utilized extensively on Robert Zemeckis' 'The Polar Express' (Zemeckis' ImageMovers production company also co-financed 'Monster House'), 'Monster House' then took the technique one step further. Though 'Polar Express' was often visually spectacular, a majority of the film's main characters where played by a single actor, Tom Hanks, which meant he had to act out each performance separately, playing to nobody. But in 'Monster House,' director Gil Kenan instead wisely brought all of his actors together, often improvising and acting out their parts like a school play. That gives 'Monster House' a more natural, spontaneous feel, as if we are truly watching a story that's organic and alive, and not just a bunch of disparate CGI clip art spliced together.
'Monster House' is also a breath of fresh air because, at least during the first half, there is a real sense of danger to the story. Maybe it's a little too intense for the youngest set, but I knew I was going to like this movie when, after a harmless dog walked by the monstrous manor, a big tongue suddenly lashed out and ate the pup right up. Sweet! The film constantly straddles this line between whimsy and wickedness, juggling the darker sensibilities of a Tim Burton film with our expectations of a more innocuous, Disney-like adventure. It is rare to see a family-friendly animated movie with some real playfulness in its heart, and even if I wasn't surprised that the ending wasn't quite so grim as the film's first half leads us to believe, I still enjoyed being surprised.
Given the overload of bad CGI movies that have come out recently ('The Wild,' 'The Ant Bully' and 'The Barnyard,' to name but a few), and the fact that we can't rely solely on Pixar to feed our hunger for quality animated features, I'm glad 'Monster House' did well during its theatrical run this past summer. It proves there are other exciting voices currently working in the field today, and that motion-capture technology has real possibilities if it is married with genuine human performance. I'm also excited to see what the young Kenan is going to do next. Hey, maybe even a 'Monster House' sequel -- something tells me we haven't seen the last of that hungry old home just yet.
'Monster House' did not look like I expected. For some reason, I figured it would be another cheesy Pixar knock-off, the kind with sterile, lazy animation more befitting a direct-to-video sequel than a theatrical motion picture. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that the film borrows just as heavily from stop-motion animation (think Tim Burton's 'Corpse Bride') as 'Toy Story.' 'Monster House' may indeed be the missing link between the two forms, and combined with its pioneering motion-capture technology, the film does represent a significant step forward in cutting-edge animation.
Sony has produced a very fine 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer that does this good-looking movie justice. The most immediately striking aspect of the image is its unique texture. Though entirely computer-generated, characters in particular have a waxy sheen that makes them looked like photographed stop-motion creations. "Skin" has a far more smooth veneer than you usually see in a CGI feature, and the level of detail is impressive. Colors, too, are a bit unique. The film is bathed in amber -- very appropriate for a story that takes place during Halloween, of course -- and oranges, reds and greens are particularly vivid. Conversely, nighttime scenes feature deep blues and purples. Colors remain stable, and I was pleased with the level of consistency and cleanliness throughout.
Other aspects of the transfer are also strong. If 'Monster House' is not absolutely the sharpest transfer I've seen of an animated feature (it appears slightly diffused, though this is consistent with the theatrical showing I saw), it still packs a lot of depth. The image is quite three-dimensional in appearance, which is especially noticeable in early scenes, as the film makes great creative use of the positioning of the monster house and its neighbors. However, I did notice what looked like some very slight "grain" in solid areas of the picture at times, such as skies and the like. However, whether this is present on the master and thus intentional I do not know. In any case, it is slight and didn't intrude on my enjoyment of the transfer.
(Note: Since posting this review, we received word from Sony that while 'Monster House' is a direct digital-to-digital transfer with no intermediate film print, a "synthetic film grain" was added to the source master as a creative decision on behalf of the filmmakers.)
"Monster House' also gets a very lively uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix. The film benefits greatly from very active sound design, with a wealth of interesting effects, clever use of the surround channels and a fun music score.
The soundtrack's aggressive is apparent from the film's opening sequence. The rear channels immediately come alive with score and various discrete effects. Things only get better as the story progresses and the monster house of the title becomes the sonic star of the movie. I got a kick out of the use of sounds moving from the front to back speakers (as the film often uses contrasts between foreground and background to set up tension), and pans are near-transparent.
'Monster House' is also filled with some great voice performances, which are well served by the mix. Dialogue is never obscured or overpowered throughout. Dynamic range is also excellent, with a genuine richness and depth and strong low bass. Though perhaps not as bombastic as a big action film, I was continually surprised and excited by the sheer sonic force of the soundtrack, at least when I turned it up to a health volume level. 'Monster House' is a highly entertaining, zippy soundtrack.
Sony has packed quite a bit of extra features on 'Monster House,' despite it being a lowly BD-25 single-layer disc (my, how antiquated that sounds already). Though I think I've seen about a zillion of these animated movie making-ofs by now, what makes 'Monster House' fresh is its boundary-stretching motion capture technology, which makes for a fascinating watch. My only caveat? One very irritating commentary track. But more on that later...
My favorite supplement is the 35-minute documentary "Inside 'Monster House.'" It takes us step-by-step through the entire production process of making the film, from conceptualizing the film's visual look and design, to days spent with actors in funny body suits with "motion capture dots" all over their faces, acting out scenes. It is quite a sight to watch a rather festively plump Kathleen Turner, hunched on all fours with a hair helmet on, playing "the ugliest cartoon character ever." Also heard from are a wide variety of cast and crew, including director Gil Kenan, producers Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis, and actors Steve Buscemi, Jon Heder, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kevin James. Packed with information but not overlong, "Inside 'Monster House'" is one of the better making-ofs of this type I've seen. (Note that the doc is divided into seven parts, but it's highly preferable just to hit "Play All." The segments include: "Imaginary Heroes," "Beginner's Luck," "The Best of Friends," "Lots of Dots," "Black Box Theater," "Making it Real" and "Did You Hear That?")
One additional is included, "Evolution of a Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker." It is also broken down into seven shorter vignettes. After a brief introduction, production footage, storyboards and a side-by-side final comparison give a thorough peek at how a complete sequence is conceived, constructed and fine-tuned before the final animation is completed.
Next up we have a screen-specific audio commentary. Unfortunately, it is one of the most frustrating tracks I've ever listened to, because not a single participant is identified! I could make out director Gil Kenan's voice, as well as producer Steve Starkey, but that's only because I watched the documentary first. The second half gets a bit better, as who I think are more recognizable actors show up (or, rather, are edited in, as all the participants were obviously recorded separately then assembled together). Unfortunately, while there is some good info here, I just threw up my hands after a awhile, because I just didn't know who was who. Maybe this would be best to listen to with some friends, like a game -- whoever can name the most participants wins the disc, or at least gets a beer. (By the way, speaking of oddities, all the disc's extras feature optional subtitles -- in Korean only. Why not at least English, too? Weird.)
Rounding out the extras is a nice still gallery called "The Art of 'Monster House.'" Divided into three sections (People, Places and Things, of course) it is nicely annotated with text descriptions, and offers a fairly extensive amount of conceptual art, animation drawings and finished cut still frames. It is also automated, so you can either sit back and watch it like a slideshow, or click through quicker if you have a short attention span.
Unfortunately, no theatrical trailers for 'Monster House' are included, only previews for other Sony titles.
'Monster House' is both scary and cute, the kind of movie innocuous enough for the younger set to watch, but still cool enough for adults to enjoy. Overall, I was impressed with this Blu-ray release -- a very fine transfer and soundtrack deliver the goods, and the extras are solid too (though the commentary track is a total mess). Otherwise, this is well worth checking out, especially this Halloween as alternative viewing to all those slasher flicks and remakes of Japanese horror movies.