Shack Attack
By Noel Vera

Monster House
Dir: Gil Kenan

Gil Kenan's "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.

The "motion-captured" 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.

Unfortunately 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.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 09/08/06.
Comments? Email me at

For more... email with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."

January 19, 2007