DVD Review – ‘Monster House’

     October 23, 2006

Reviewed by Matt Lynch

Either I’m getting old, or kids’ movies today are getting crappier. When I was a kid, I never would have sat still for stuff like Monster House, a film so lacking in exactly what it purports to be full of that you might as well just watch an empty screen. Little wonder, then, that it in part comes from Robert Zemeckis, a man seemingly bent on the removal of the soul from the alchemy that can be a great motion picture.

How did this happen? How did the man who made Back to the Future, a film so beloved by children, turn into this drab, wonderless hack? Like George Lucas before him, he’s now just a sad old technocrat.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Monster House. A thoroughly unremarkable picture. It’s about three kids who suspect that the house across the street is, in fact, a monster. They set out to uncover the truth. And indeed they do. The end. Aside from a few cute jokes here and there and a third act chase scene that’s sort of clever, that’s the whole movie.

Oh, I almost forgot: The whole thing was filmed by director Gil Kenan using Zemeckis’ patented Performance Capture technology, whereby real actors are used to animate a CGI created character. This isn’t your average CG-animated production. No, for some reason the filmmakers went to great expense to film real people and then (and I’m simplifying) paint over them with computers. Why?

I don’t know why. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no reason for this film to be a CG-animated one. What was probably a long and costly production could have been achieved more cheaply and, I believe, more effectively, had it been a simple live-action movie. But this, after all, is a film targeted at young children, and evidently the major studios think that kids won’t watch anything unless it’s a CG cartoon. And so you get Shrek 3 this May, to be the third in a series of insanely popular insufferable pieces of crap.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that Monster House would have been good had it been a live-action or even a traditionally animated movie. No, it would still be bad, because the script is terrible. There isn’t an interesting character in the whole movie it’s populated solely by cardboard (in this case CGI) cutouts standing in for real children. They’re “grownup” fantasies about childlike innocence. It’s nostalgic nonsense. These kids talk about cooties and steal candy, yet can still summon up the intelligence to operate complex machinery like construction equipment. Do kids really act this way? Is this how they see themselves?

All the adults are neglectful and in some cases, downright abusive. Is this how children see us? I was never this naïve or downright stupid as a child. No, I saved this sort of behavior until I was well into my 20’s. I can’t imagine what some of the kids featured in this film would do given the access to alcohol that I have.

Finally, all the audience is left with is empty spectacle. Yes, the look of the piece is fantastic, showcasing a great level of detail. The performance capture really does make some of the facial expressions seem genuine. But in my opinion, which I value quite highly, that in and of itself does not constitute animation, which is a skill all its own. Simply recording someone’s movements and slapping another picture over them may look terrific and certainly has the capacity to be a tantalizing illusion (see Gollum or King Kong), but it seems woefully out of place here. Something that was only done because it could be, not because it could be made unique or special.

Monster House appears on DVD featuring the usual excellent transfer, with a fine 2.35:1 anamorphic image and a nice, spacious Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. There is also a fullscreen version available for kids who don’t like black bars.

There are numerous brief featurettes, mostly devoted to the look of the film and the means by which that was achieved, along with a commentary track featuring director Gil Kenan and producer Steve Starkey. This covers the same ground, only takes much longer to do so.

Ironically, the extras on this DVD remind me of the film itself, in that they are perfunctory and ultimately unremarkable. They are in service merely of themselves.

We have all seen plenty of DVDs and watched countless hours of bonus features. Even the best of these nowadays feel routine, yielding no actual insight into the production of a film or the construction of its narrative. DVDs are only packed with extras because there is space on the disc, or because this will move units.

As with the performance capture used to make Monster House, just because you can do a thing doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. So I have to say that the extra features are as bland and useless as the film they discuss.

Please, make your kids watch a real movie for children. If it has to be recent, let it be The Incredibles or The Iron Giant, two masterworks to be sure. If you’re willing to dig into the far reaches of the 1980s, you’ll find really wonderful stuff like Back to the Future or The Goonies or The Dark Crystal, a film that used revolutionary techniques to tell a story that couldn’t be otherwise told.

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