Written By: Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler
Directed By: Gil Kenan
US Theatrical Release: July 21, 2006 (Sony Pictures/ Columbia Pictures)
US DVD Release: October 24, 2006
Running Time: 1:31:12 (28 chapter stops)
Rating: PG (For Scary Images and Sequences, Thematic Elements, Some Crude Humor and Brief Language)
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.78:1 anamorphic)
Audio: English DD5.1, French DD5.1 (Extra Features: English DD2.0)
Subtitles: English, French (Extra Features: None)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
Packaging: Standard keepcase with cardboard slipcover that folds open and features a dial that changes the picture; one insert features cover images from other Sony Pictures titles and a second insert features a $3 coupon towards one of 18 different Sony DVDs.
THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 4/5
We have here quite a rare bird – an honest-to-goodness horror film for kids. You won’t find any wisecracking closet monsters or song-and-dance skeletons in Monster House (not that there’s anything wrong with those). What you will find is a spooky, fun Halloween treat that doesn’t patronize its pre-adolescent target audience or insult their parents’ intelligence. Not to mention some truly spectacular motion-captured animation.
DJ (Mitchel Musso) is on the cusp of adolescence – girls are suddenly interesting, but he still loves his stuffed bunny. In addition to the things that normally confuse kids of that certain age, however, he has to deal with the haunted house across the street. DJ’s been noting strange goings-on through his window for as long as he can remember. Naturally, no grown-up is buying this story, so he’s eventually going to have to confront the mystery himself.
The titular house belongs to mean old Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who makes a habit of confiscating any toy or bike unfortunate enough to enter his property. His ranting and screaming terrorize the neighborhood kids, who are far too scared to try and retrieve any of their lost possessions. JD, who’s been paying close attention from his nearby vantage point, notices that there’s more to the happenings in that yard than just a belligerent old crank growling at trespassers.
Shortly before Halloween, Nebbercracker is carted away in the back of an ambulance, leaving the sinister house unoccupied. Or is it? JD and his buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner) approach the house, and discover that JD’s suspicions are in fact correct – there is something evil in there. They realize that any trick-or-treater who approaches it could be in grave danger.
Their worst fears are soon realized when a girl around their age, Jenny (Spencer Locke), appears, going door-to-door selling candy. They are barely able to save her from a horrible fate when she walks up to the Nebbercracker home. Jenny’s arrival is both good news and bad news for our heroes. There are now three kids who know what’s going on, but the boys’ budding hormones get in the way of the smooth functioning of the team – not only do they have to deal with a demonic force, they have to impress a girl while doing it!
The three heroes, who are likeable and real, will appeal to kids in their age group (and younger) without driving the adults in the audience nuts. While the three youngsters are forced to solve problems without the help of the grown-ups around them, who don’t believe a word of their stories, the film never ventures into grating “smart kids & stupid adults” territory. These 12-year-olds behave like 12-year-olds, and the older characters behave like adults (for the most part, anyway). It doesn’t hurt that nearly every supporting role is filled by a well-known and talented actor with a sense of fun (in addition to Buscemi, listen for Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, John Heder, Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Kathleen Turner, Catherine O’Hara, and Fred Willard). This is a movie about kids and aimed at kids, so don’t expect too much sophistication, but most adults will find it entertaining enough.
As mentioned previously, Monster House is at heart a horror flick. There is plenty of humor, but the essential storyline involves a dangerous evil and the violence that it perpetrates. PG is PG -- there is no gore or brutality, and the action is generally cartoonish (natch!), but things do get pretty intense at times. Parents of younger kids who aren’t sure how they’ll react should probably screen the film before deciding whether it’s appropriate. Plenty of 3- and 4-year olds will have a blast, but some 8-year-olds may have nightmares. You know your kids best. (My 15-month-old found the scary stuff hilarious, but was a bit freaked out by some of the foundation-shaking subwoofer action. And no, we didn’t plop him in front of the TV for 90 minutes – he just saw a few parts.)
Monster House makes use of an advanced form of motion capture known as performance capture. The actors performed all of their scenes in a motion capture studio while wearing wetsuits covered with scores of sensors. 70 sensors were stuck to each actor’s face alone. More than 200 special cameras turned the cast’s movements into computer data, which then went through a series of automated and manual processes to arrive at the final product, which sports a wonderful three-dimensional look. This technique also allowed scenes to be performed straight through, almost like live theater, with the filmmakers determining the “camera” positions and movements in post-production. This made possible all sorts of active and dynamic camera work, which really brought the film to life. Many scenes have almost a handheld feel, which is rare in animation. Monster House is a spectacular technical achievement, due both to its amazing technology and, more importantly, to the way that technology was used in the service of art.
THE WAY I SEE IT: 4.5/5
Digitally animated films tend to come across very well on DVD, and this is no exception. Much of the color palette consists of muted, dark tones, but things get bright when they need to be. Detail is excellent, with no visible artifacting to speak of. There is a touch of digital grain present, which just adds to the realistic feel of the animation. I strongly suspect that this is how the film looked in the cinema.
THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4.5/5
The soundtrack is just as good. Nicely active surrounds, booming LFE (where appropriate), and clear dialogue do a great job of immersing the listener in the film.
THE SWAG: 3.5/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)
A group track that appears to have been cobbled together from separate recordings of a number of participants, of whom only director Gil Kenan is identified. However, much of it is scene-specific, and there’s no dead air. There is some overlap with information in the featurettes, but for the most part it’s complementary to them and well worth a listen.
Inside Monster House
Seven featurettes are included, running a total of about 23 minutes. A lot of clever design and fascinating technology went into this film, and they do a very nice job of covering it via behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. There are almost no film clips padding things out. The only complaint about the featurettes is that they could have easily run twice as long.
Imaginary Heroes: Character Design (3:31)
The design is discussed from the initial concepts, to artwork, to model-building.
Beginner’s Luck: Casting (2:27)
According to this, every one of the director’s first choices agreed to participate. Actually, not hard to believe. The cast is just about perfect.
The Best of Friends: DJ, Chowder & Jenny (2:43)
A look at the three young leads, who display as much personality in real life as they do in the film.
Lots of Dots: Performance Capture (2:30)
Cast and crew discuss the new technology used to give the film its unique look.
Black Box Theater: Motion Capture (4:15)
More discussion of the way the actor’s movements were translated into animation.
Making It Real: Inside the Animation Process (6:05)
This covers the animation post-production, which involved all sorts of interesting stuff.
Did You Hear That? Sound Design (2:57)
Both voice and sound effect recording are included. The way they came up with the house sounds was rather mind-blowing.
Evolution of a Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker (2:50)
A multi-angle feature that compares five stages of production of the rather complex first sequence in the film, from the basic preliminary animatic to the final version.
The Art of Monster House
Three still galleries of conceptual art are included. The images are clicked through using the DVD remote. They include some very nice material – definitely some of the coolest still galleries I’ve seen in a while. These are not simple sketches; most of them are complete, full-color illustrations. The galleries are Conceptual Art (59 images, including a few for scenes that were never filmed), People (67 images, including photos of some sculpted models), and Places and Things (38 images).
Inserting the DVD and clicking on the door (a sign says “Click on the door to enter. . .if you dare”) brings up a web page that features a set of film stills that you can add your own photos to, games (including the actual Sega Genesis-like “Thou Art Dead” platformer that appears in the film), computer wallpapers, buddy icons, a screen saver, audio files of scary stories submitted by fans and read by the movie’s cast, and various printable activities (puzzles, pumpkin-carving templates, Halloween cards, etc.). (For whatever reason, this is the only way to get there without saving the link – clicking on “DVD-ROM” in the Special Features Menu just brings up the same “Insert this disk into your DVD-ROM drive” screen whether you’re watching on a DVD deck or on a PC.)
The link’s worth checking out.
The trailers for Open Season and Spider-Man 3 play automatically when the disc is inserted. They may be skipped.
- Open Season (2:14) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- Zoom (2:06) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- Spider-Man 3 (1:39) (DD5.1; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
- RV (2:20) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- The Pink Panther (2006) (2:04) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- Are We There Yet? (2:33) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
The Way I Feel About It: 4/5
The Way I See It: 4.5/5
The Way I Hear It: 4.5/5
The Swag: 3.5/5
A solid scary story, fantastic picture and sound quality, and a plethora of cool extra features. What more could one want in a Halloween release? Frankly, I’m amazed that Sony isn’t pushing this disc more – top to bottom, it exudes quality, and easily garners my RECOMMENDATION. And there aren’t even any toy tie-ins (as far as I know, anyway). A reminder to parents, though – this is a horror film and it’s rated PG. If you aren’t sure whether it will be appropriate for your young children, please screen it yourself first. You’ll probably enjoy it anyway.