Locus Online
Features Indexes
Monday 24 July 2006

Monster House

reviewed by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Gil Kenan

Written by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler

Starring the voices of Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Spencer Locke, Jason Lee, Jon Heder, Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara

Both: Monster House is not particularly bad, but it's not particularly good, either. Seeing it makes you appreciate Pixar's far better films all the more.

Howard Waldrop: Ebert and Roeper raved about this, wrongly I think. It's worth seeing, but I don't know, like Lawrence, for whom this was made. It's too scary for little kids, and it will probably not please the oldsters.

Lawrence Person: It looks like they tried to play it safe by making a mostly kids film with just enough crude humor (including bottles of pee and the adolescent joys to be found in confusion over the word "uvula") to avoid a G rating. My guess is that 10-12 year old boys will enjoy it a good deal; younger than that and it will probably be a bit too scary (maybe a bit worse than Snow White), while older than that will find it too tame and lame.

Both: Instead of recusing ourselves, we're going to say right at the outset that the whole movie is very similar to Joe R. Lansdale and Doug Potter's Something Lumber This Way Comes (a children's book which came out from Subterranean Press in 1999). There's a different raisin daughter, and some back-and-front loading, but once the house starts moving, it's like the middle of their book.

LP: The title pretty much gives you what little story there is. Pre-teen boy DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) becomes convinced that something's wrong with the mean old man (Steve Buscemi)'s house across the street. Mean old man has heart attack telling punk kids to get the hell off his lawn, gets carted off in ambulance. Protagonist and pudgy sidekick Chowder (Sam Lerner) see continued residence malevolence and investigate, despite the obstacle of sexy/mean punk rock babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), eventually getting help from Jenny (Spencer Locke), AKA "requisite female love interest thrown in for demographic balance." Complications (both competent and formulaic) ensue.

HW: Once you get into the old-fashioned (non-PoMo) plot (kids suspect the house lived in by mean Old Man — he'd be the Boo Radley of the piece if he'd ever shut up — is Other; parents and cops don't care — yadda yadda yadda — Wooga Wooga Wooga — The End) it's fine. Except they back load some explanation/justification at the end in an attempt to make daylight logic out of what we've just seen.

LP: The backstory is indeed pretty lame; you'd be hard pressed to find a professional SF/F/H writer who couldn't come up with a more interesting one in about ten minutes. However, except for that, the last 30 minutes of the film works pretty well, both the inside-the-house and house-on-a-rampage portions. But getting there will involve some finger-tapping and watch-checking for most adults. And it ends up being entirely too cost-free. A sharp contrast is the ending of Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree; the bargain the kids make for the life of their friend is what bothers you the most if you read it as a child — and it's what really sticks with you as an adult. Here, there's nothing you'll think about a week from now.

HW: It takes place on Halloween Eve (like The War of the Worlds radio broadcast) and Halloween. It takes a while, in this stylized, animated movie, to figure out it takes place now and not in 1960 or so. (Someone picked up a wireless phone, and I knew, for the first time...)

There's the usual CGI animation here. In less than ten years, audiences have become ho-hum about stuff that would have brought a standing ovation twenty years ago: the world viewed through the bottom of a tossed beer bottle; a shot not only of a house and a yard but the first three feet under the yard; a mole's eye view, if moles saw or cared much.

They (Image Movers) know what they're doing here — there are homages to Dinosaurus (1960) (house vs. "steam shovel") and Quatermass and the Pit/Five Million Years To Earth (construction-crane climax).

LP: Unfortunately, as good as the CGI is, it keeps reminding you just how much better Pixar does everything. For the first 25 or 30 minutes, I couldn't forget that what I was looking at were moving blobs rather than people. In The Incredibles, within two minutes I was completely sucked into the world. I also kept thinking how pedestrian the script was, and how generic all the characters seemed.

HW: Chowder is every fat kid sidekick there ever was or will ever be. There's some overdone byplay with a couple of unbelieving cops (too-much-more-coffeed-up than the ones in Invaders From Mars (1953)).

LP: The rookie cop is sort of a black Barney Fife (Godspeed, Don, Godspeed), but more annoying (which I'm sure will have The Committee of People Who Always Have To Protest Some Damn Thing up in arms). But, like Chowder, when the characters aren't annoying, they're rather embarrassingly generic.

HW: I can't get excited about this, except as an artifact. Nothing really surprised me, except Jenny's savvy. Pretty good for a preppie. (Pretty good for a screenwriter, too.)

LP: Indeed, the two best characters are Zee and Jenny. Unfortunately, there are also the ones most out-of-place and ill-used compared to their overall potential. Zee has a lot more energy and interest than the usual evil babysitter, but it's like she wandered in from another movie aimed at an older, edgier audience. (Ditto her painfully generic Evil Babysitter's Evil Boyfriend Bones; ditto the completely out-of-place video game wizard Skull; yeah, my sides are just splitting over those ever-so-clever names...) Likewise, Jenny starts out as a pretty sharp cookie working all the angles, but soon morphs into just the generic female sidekick/object of rival affections. It bears all the signs of "one too many Hollywood rewrites" syndrome.

HW: I saw this flat — Lawrence saw this in 3-D so he can tell you whether it's worth the extra $1.50 for the effects with the glasses on.

LP: It's worth about exactly that. The 3-D works, and is occasionally pretty cool during the climatic scenes, but I wouldn't go out of my way to catch the 3-D version, unless you have some kids who have never seen a 3-D film; for them it would probably be worth the novelty value. Be warned that, while I didn't get a headache from it, I did keep blinking my eyes all the way home until I could take out my contacts. Might just be me, or maybe it's something that only affects contact wearers, and it was only a mild annoyance.

HW: As I said, a couple of frightening images are probably too much for six-year olds. (There were two in the front row in front of me with a mom and they were quiet, which always means they're overpowered.)

There are credit cookies — if you go, stay.

Both: If you've got some bored 10-12 year old boys, you could do a lot worse than parking them in front of this for two hours. But you could also do a lot better.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.