Sunday, October 24, 2010

Monster House: Halloween Horror--for Kids

Monster House is a 2006 animated film (adult speak for cartoon) by Gil Kenan, produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, with voice talents from Kevin James and Steve Buscemi. DJ Walters (Mitchel Musso, Second Hand Lions, Hannah Montana) discovers that the home of Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) is alive with the spirit of his dead wife, when he witnesses the home taking toys and people that trespass on the lawn. It is Halloween night and the house really, really, really hates the holiday and the children that are sure to come knocking on, or worse--egg the front door. The boy, along with his friends Chowder and Jennifer seek to extinguish the heart of the house, killing it and putting an end to its evil before it can do more harm. What follows is visually stunning and action oriented with frightening images that should give parents pause before letting their younger children watch the film.

There are numerous things to recommend this film to viewers, whether lovers of pulp action, horror, or cartoons. The animation is CGI based on the motion capture style called simply movement capture. Though high tech this is the same style utilized by Max Fleischer, Disney, and Ralph Bakshi in the 70’s of capturing the actual movement of the actors and rendering them in animation. This is not as ground breaking as it was hailed, (along with Polar Express) but it is an interesting footnote in animation history.

What recommended this film to me, as any, is the story. Reminiscent of Stephen King’s early short stories like The Mangler, that gives malignant life to inanimate objects; one wonders if Monster House drew inspiration from another of King’s works, The Wastelands, published in 1991 that features a living, malevolent house. Though, such ideas are not unknown in literature.

What sets this apart for me is the way the story unfolds as the children discover and piece together the truth of the house, finally confirmed by the old man Nebbercracker. Here be spoilers so you are warned…….

Armed with the knowledge that the house is a spirit bound to the structure and super soaker squirt guns they begin their quest. The children become trapped within the house after an attack so they begin to explore the creepy environs. They seek the fiery heart of the creature, by extinguishing it the house can be “killed”.

Through their harrowing investigation they discover that the old man was married to a gargantuan woman, and judging by the pictures, very happy and that the old man was once a demolition expert in the military; further supported by the plot enabling explosives laying about. The local lore has it that Nebbercracker murdered his long missing wife. They discover the lost toys from the neighborhood in the basement, and the remains of Nebbercracker’s wife, Constance, encased in cement. The corpse is confined within a cage that declares Constance the Giantess, a side show freak’s cage, sealed with a heart shaped lock, the key is in DJ’s possession after Nebbercracker dropped it earlier in the movie. The house awakens and the battle resumes, with the house attempting to devour the children. Old man Nebbercracker returns to explain what DJ has all ready puzzled out. He explains that his wife’s death was an accident on Halloween years before when the house was being built. Nebbercracker completed the construction and guarded the neighborhood against his wife’s vengeful spirit, loving her beyond death and despite it. Now, with age and time creeping upon him, he knows that it must end. What ensues is a rampaging house sized monster that does battle with Chowder behind the controls of a earth mover and and DJ doing a Death Star run on the chimney with a packet of dynamite to extinguish the heart.

The story was well crafted, with imagery blending well to tell the story as well as the words spoken. The flash back scene with Mr. Nebbercracker meeting and falling in love with Constance, with her tragic life as a side show attraction was heart felt and sad. Such a device is well employed later in Pixar’s Up! It demonstrates that animation can tell as powerful story as any film that employees live actors. The axiom of “if you have a gun in the first act it better be used in the third” is well demonstrated in the film, each piece a clue to the puzzle and a layer to the story. The kids are kids, with kid fears and kid stupid courage well voiced and fun to watch. The action is cliff hanger style that has Zemeckis’ and Spielberg’s finger prints all over it. Considering their track records this is not a bad thing.

It was an enjoyable film that I may wind up adding to my growing collection. I would strongly recommend parental previews though for smaller children. The house, with its gnashing boards as devouring fangs, its clawing tree limbs as its arms and grasping hands, along with the skeletal remains of Constance create harrowing imagery that might be too much for younger viewers.