Why do animators on films like Monster House and The Polar Express spend so much energy trying to realistically render people? The wave of the future is clearly the rotoscoping technique developed by Bob Sabiston, which can be seen in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, the latter slated for release here next week. These films, in which animators trace over footage shot with live actors, offer the best of both worlds — the expressiveness of human performers with the creative freedom of animation. Pixels and polygons just can’t compete.
More rudimentary technical limitations are what hurt the otherwise enjoyable Monster House. The motion isn’t smooth, which is readily apparent in an early scene with a boy dribbling a basketball — the ball doesn’t bounce convincingly, and the boy’s muscles don’t seem to be making the ball bounce. The animation is also poor at capturing surfaces. There’s little visual difference between the characters’ skin, the metal in cars and bicycles, and the wood in the titular house. You can’t help feeling the teams at Pixar or even DreamWorks would have done right by these things.
That’s too bad, because this movie boasts not only sharp writing but also a story idea that’s unusually dark and twisted for a kids’ film. A 12-year-old boy named DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), whose parents have left him in a babysitter’s care for the weekend of Halloween, goes after a basketball that has landed in the yard of the mean old man who lives across the street (voiced by Steve Buscemi). A genuinely frightening scene ensues, when the old man comes out in a towering rage and manhandles DJ before suffering a fatal heart attack. Even more disturbing stuff is yet to come, as DJ and his chubby best friend Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner) conclude that the old man’s house is alive and busy eating yard signs, stray dogs, and anything or anyone else that sets foot on the property, now that its owner is dead. They have an unexpected ally in Jenny (voiced by Spencer Locke), a slightly older girl who almost gets swallowed up while selling school candy.
The screenwriters do an excellent job of maintaining the kids’ pre-teen perspective on things; when Jenny locates what she believes to be the house’s uvula, Chowder says in an enlightened tone, “Oh! So it’s a girl house!” The movie brims with character details that ring true, like the way DJ and Chowder revere an overweight pizza delivery guy (voiced by Jon Heder) as a genius because he’s a wiz at a medieval-themed arcade game called Thou Art Dead. The voice talent is all dead-on, especially the adult performers like Heder and Maggie Gyllenhaal as DJ’s negligent babysitter. Best of all is the work by first-time director Gil Kenan, who turns the screws of suspense like an expert. The house is all the scarier for being such a well-conceived character. The imagination that goes into the house is the main reason why Monster House is, for all its shortcomings, such a kick in this summer’s moviegoing.
Voices by Mitchel Musso, Spencer Locke, and Sam Lerner. Directed by Gil Kenan. Written by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler. Rated PG.