Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Cheap Critic: Monster House



Monster House is a nearly perfect little film -- macabre, funny and charming -- and made with a surprisingly light and deft touch for a creative team with so little filmmaking experience. It opens with a tight shot of a single brightly-colored autumn leaf fluttering on a branch and then letting go to fly away with the wind. We follow that leaf as it swoops and swirls, mixing with other equally colorful leaves in a scene undoubtedly intended to show off the 3D computer animation to best effect. [Note: I saw a flat print; I'd love to see it in 3D.] The leaf finally settles to the sidewalk and is then sent swirling again when a little girl on a tricycle goes by, singing along with the orchestral theme that opened the movie and saying hello to all the things she sees. "Hello leaves... Hello mailbox..." We follow the little girl and her wake of beautiful swirling leaves until suddenly, not watching where she is going, she runs off the sidewalk and gets stuck in the grass in front of a creepy old house. She pedals franticly but cannot get any traction in the oddly-perfect lawn in front of the decrepit house. The door to the house opens and a frightening, desperately-angry old man comes out and yells at her. At no point in the film does any character mention the fact that the lawn of the old house has not one leaf on it. The film went to some trouble to establish the time of year and the omnipresent falling leaves but then trusts the audience to notice that they stop at the old house's property line.

The main plot involves a boy who lives across the street who has become obsessively convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the old house and the man who lives there. The boy cannot convince his parents, who are leaving on a business trip, that he is not just imagining things, nor can he convince his babysitter, who he is almost too old to need -- or even his best friend "Chowder". Still, Halloween is only a few days away and it would be dangerous for trick-or-treaters to ring the doorbell on that old house. Chowder is all about planning for their own trick-or-treating but our hero is convinced that something has to be done about the house.


I won't spend a lot of time reviewing the rest of the plot; there are lots of reviews of Monster House you can find if you look for them. I will remark on a running theme in some of the reviews I have seen that say Monster House offers little that is new. This is, by and large, a fair observation but also one that misses the point. Yes, Monster House is a coming of age story where three young people -- two boys and a slightly-precocious girl -- become aware of a problem that the adults in the story won't believe in. Yes, it makes use of the standard tensions of the form -- two boys just entering puberty, long-time buddies, admit an attractive young girl to their club. Yes, it is a spooky Halloween story released so that it will come out on DVD a week before Halloween. Yes, it has potty humor and fart jokes, a haunted house, a scary old man, moronic cops -- all the standard elements of the form. So what? the point is: it all works. To complain that the film is assembled from stock elements is like going to a really good French Bakery and complaining that the croissants contain nothing but the usual flour, butter, salt and chocolate.

Steven Spielberg is one of the producers and you can see why he liked the idea enough to put some of his money in it. This film has the magical element that Spielberg always reaches for in his films. But where Spielberg often fails to capture the magic by trying too hard this film nails it easily. In a Spielberg film when the Magic Machine {tm} is started up one can hear the clunk as the blade slams home in the switch, the lights dim for a few seconds as the machine starts and the power grid struggles to keep up. An electric hum is easily audible, and then... the theater is flooded with too-sweet, treacley goo. In Monster House there is no hint of strain -- the film simply is magical and there is no need for the manipulation machine.

Monster House is due out on DVD a week before Halloween. Some parents may find it too scary for small kids but the small kids in the audience when I saw it would probably disagree. The young man sitting in my row was probably six or seven. He spent the whole film on his mom's lap. After one of the film's many genuinely scary bits I heard him tell his mom "That was awesome!" and after the film, as they were leaving he confessed to some initial misgivings: "It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be."

For the most part young kids will respond to the film as a macabre adventure story. The film has some genuinely creepy bits but young children won't notice them. They give the grown-ups something to thing about. For instance, remember that first shot with the leaf letting go of the branch? Think about that in the context of a ghost story...