Monstrously simple recipe for a movie

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Monstrously simple recipe for a movie

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A child's imagination is an mysterious alchemical machine, turning the dull lead of being young, the constant helplessness and vulnerability, into a golden dream. Finding the fantastic in the ordinary is its greatest strength ― but that doesn’t mean that sheer willpower can turn a frightened kid into an assertive super-spy. Most children’s films seem to have forgotten this, relying instead on a constant bombardment of flashing colors and one-liners.
So it’s good to see that some still remember how to tell a children’s story with both highs and lows, with characters that quiver as well as quip. “Monster House” is one of those traditional tales we all encountered as kids, of the weird old man with the old, crumbling house, who you’re certain will tear your arms off if you try to get your Frisbee back.
In this case, as it turns out, the old man, Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), isn’t the only grouch. The house itself is also a malevolent monstrosity, absorbing toys ominously into the lawn and gobbling up children that get too close to the gaping maw of its front door.
It’s Halloween day. D.J. (Mitchel Musso), a boy on the edge of puberty, thinks he has the house and the old man figured out. But when an intense one-on-one encounter over a jelly ball gives Mr. Nebbercracker a heart attack, D.J. is sure he’s killed the old man ― and with its master no longer constraining it, the house begins to seek out fresh victims. D.J. enlists the help of his friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and a passing Girl Scout named Jenny (Spencer Locke) to put the house to sleep and douse its heart (the fire in the fireplace), saving their neighborhood. Of course, it turns out neither the house nor the old man are what they seem.
The animation was produced using motion capture technology first used in “The Polar Express,” but this film has a look and feel unlike any that has come before it. There are only a few sets in the film, but the time saved on quantity has been spent on quality: Characters and backgrounds blend seamlessly.
Character interaction, for the most part, matches the believability of the animation. As the characters face down each new abomination, their blind terror is obvious. D.J., Chowder and Jenny visibly struggle to keep their cool, a very difficult emotion to animate.
But the real star of the film is the house itself. The transformation from decaying dump to terrifying menace and back again is animated in creepily exhaustive detail. This is where the film’s lighting plays a major role ― the care given to color and placement of shadows creates frames that, if bound and printed, would be indistinguishable from painstaking individual illustrations.
This Steven Spielberg production is in many ways the complete opposite of the other CGI family films coming out this year. “Ice Age 2,” “Cars,” “Over the Hedge,” each depends to a certain extent on overproduction ― blisteringly fast action set pieces, stunningly detailed backgrounds, the biggest of big-name voice actors, and only the hippest dialogue. But “Monster House” puts itself at the service of a simple story, directly told, depending on child actors for its protagonists, set on a single block of a single city ― the world of a child. The film proves yet again the old adage: Take a good story, tell it honestly, and the rest will follow.


by Ben Applegate

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