By Noel Vera
Dir: Gil Kenan
"Monster House" is amusing enough, a mix of Steven Spielberg suburbia,
Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," the "Evil Dead" movies (pasteurized
and homogenized, of course), bits of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and
the Halloween sequence from Vincente Minnelli's "Meet Me in St.
Louis." Three kids notice some funny goings-on in the house across
the street: the owner falls down dead (through in a way the fault
of the kids) and various neighbors are either lured, rolled up or
tossed into the house's open maw of a door, never to walk out again.
It's a thorough
immersion into the kids' worlds, and best of all it's done with
a minimum of sticky sentiment or the kind of mandatory moralizing
kid's animation is supposed to have, the medicine that's supposed
to make the spoonful of sugar necessary.
Even when we eventually learn the house's secret, it isn't the kind
of revelation meant to uplift and instruct the child, but a sad
and sordid story more appropriate to "The Twilight Zone" than to
Cartoon Network. The three children--curious D.J. (Mitchel Musso),
pretty if uptight Jenny (Spencer Locke), gross (in every sense)
Chowder (Sam Lerner)--are distinct enough characters, their interactions
interesting enough that you feel like following their plans and
what becomes of them. It's not a bad way to spend ninety minutes.
I do have reservations
about the 'motion capture,' the way they have of photographing human
actors and rendering them in animated three-dimensional shapes.
Critics have gushed over how realistic it is, how it makes the characters'
movements unpredictable and lifelike (they cite a basketball game--obvious
excuse to showcase the technique--between D.J. and Chowder), how
it adds to the believability of the whole thing. I suppose they're
right, but if I wanted to watch two kids play basketball, why can't
I just step out into the street and watch two kids play basketball?
I don't share this thirst for greater and greater realism in animation--if
they badly want to perfect the technique, I just as badly want to
tell them to use a live-action camera and be done with it.
The great animation
masters--Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, Taiji Yabushita, Max Fleischer,
Paul Grimault, among others--eschewed attempts at shortcut realism
(in their days it would be called "rotoscoping"); the brilliance
in their technique was in the way it evoked realism (or, at least
in the case of Jones and Freleng, convincingly painful motion) without
merely copying it. A relatively inexpressive animated face is given
a quick grimace, or a funny catchphrase given a certain inflection,
or better still someone given a moment of pensive silence, and character
is illuminated like an incandescent bulb flaring into light.
Difficult to say what I mean, but the analogy that comes to mind
is how master puppeteers suggest personality and emotional nuance
through wooden puppets with carved faces, through delicate gestures
of the limbs and body. A slow nod of the head just so, and you can
evoke tenderness, sadness, resignation; the raising of a carved
hand thusly--held at this angle and for only a brief moment--and
you suggest greeting, defiance, recognition.
We may have gained something with this "motion capture;" many animators
no doubt breathe a sigh of relief at the labor-saving possibilities,
as much as they slaver over the visual possibilities, but at the
same time something ineffable has been lost. Call it some aspect
of storytelling, or imagination, or art, or call it yet another
distinctive quality of animation as opposed to simple live-action
filmmaking, but something has been lost.
characters sneak into the house; some amusing analogs to the human
body are noted (Pointing at a chandelier: "Look! That must be its
uvula!" "Oh, so it's a GIRL house
"), the usual CGI chaos ensues.
There's a moment of genuine pathos as we learn the story of Mr.
Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), the deceased homeowner; like Boo
Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" it turns out that he's more misunderstood
than malevolent, and that his link to the house is thornier and
more complex than we might suppose.
We can go further (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to
see the picture) and say that the house is like a monster equivalent
of a uterus, and that Nebbercracker is like a fetus staying decades
past term: the umbilical cord that binds them now poisons them,
tainting what should be fond memories of each other with overprotective
paranoia on the part of the house, guilt and claustrophobic resentment
on the part of the man. Not perhaps the most profound treatment
of a monster-victim relationship I know, but surprisingly sophisticated
in a kiddie cartoon.
at the picture's end the action descends to the level of a, well,
kiddie cartoon: house on legs, steam shovels, mayhem galore; the
climax involves a series of complicated acts of heroism familiar
to anyone who plays video games (take MacGuffin, shimmy up crane,
drop into chimney). The movie, just starting to get interesting
with its macabre version of undying love, retreats to childhood's
lust for zoom and boom. "Monster House" for all the skill that went
into making it and all the promise of becoming a genuine gothic
drama, ends up regressing into just another summer flick.
First published in Businessworld, 09/08/06.
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