Monster House Pre-Review (No Spoilers)

I did not have terribly high hopes for Monster House. It's one of those movies like Shrek and Superman and Curious George, that came thorugh the ILM Art Department long ago, but didn't seem like they would ever get made. In around 2000, Brian O'Connell and a few other artists at ILM did some great concept art for an ILM bid to do the effects work on what was at that point a live-action film. Long-time ILM visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig was slated to direct.

Frankly, at the time, a movie about kids discovering that a house in their neighborhood was alive and demonic seemed kind of lame. Brian (and Derek and Benton?) did some nice art of the house becoming anthropomorphic, and I could almost see it working. But in my mind it ws still kind of like Fright Night or Salem's Lot with just the evil house, and no vampire inside. Making a house come to life and grin menacingly while still being a believable house would be technically doable by ILM, but conceptually it didn't seem to mesh. Wouldn't anyone else hear or see a freakin' house come to life?

I think Garfield is a good example of what I feared would happen to a live-action Monster House. "Why is this one cat a cartoon character? Why is no one (including a veterenarian) noting the anatomical differences between this cat and all other cats and animals?" That discontinuity between styles would similarly pull you out of the movie (assuming you were ever pulled into the movie).

But, someone at Sony/Columbia or Amblin or ImageMovers made an excellent call and decided to proceed with the film as a digital feature, unifying its look and taking some of the pressure of reality off of the story. While it does have some faults, what resulted is a highly enjoyable movie.

Monster House not only takes place in the 80's, but is firmly rooted there cinematically. The combination of filmmakers who grew up with the horror comedies of the time with the oversight of executive producers Zemekis and Spielberg make this an unusual period picture. It feels like Gremlins, and Explorers, and The Gate, E.T. and the aforementioned Fright Night. I want to avoid adding Goonies and The Burbs to that list because those movies didn't quite work for me, but there is definitely a connection to those films as well. Monster House is a classic, Reagan-Era, smart kids in trouble with the supernatural/extraterrestrial, movie with the distance of two decades. For Generation-X, the 80's were a simpler, more innocent time. The 80's are our 50's.

I'll discuss the "performance capture" aspect of Monster House in detail in the post-review, but I feel compelled to at least let you know before you see it that it works. Some folks might be put off from this movie because they had a bad experience watching the "zombie kids" in Polar Express, which used a similar technique. The difference is that Monster House is stylized, whereas Polar Express was striving (and missed) a sort of magical realism. Captuing the motion of real actors and blending that with "hand" animation works in this movie. It's not perfect, but it's not distracting or creepy. We're at the very beginning of a new medium and Monster House uses it very well to tell a story that would not have worked as live action.

…we'll talk more in the post-review after you see the movie (or decide you never will).

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