It's beginning to look like Robert Zemeckis wants to make a motion-capture cartoon for every season, though his timing seems a little off. First, he directed The Polar Express, which came out in early November two years ago and, despite an initially lukewarm reception, picked up steam at the box office as Christmas itself came into view. Now, he is one of several producers (Steven Spielberg is another) behind Monster House, which takes place before and during Halloween—but the film is coming out in mid-July, more than three months before the "holiday" in question. There are precedents for releasing a film out of season, as it were (the first two Die Hard movies take place on Christmas Eve but came out in July), but this is still a little odd. What's next, a tribute to the Fourth of July on Groundhog Day?
Timing of another sort turns out to be a key issue for the main characters in Monster House, too. That is, the story concerns two boys who are in the early stages of puberty—voices cracking, and so on—and they wonder if they have already become too old to trick-or-treat. Will this be the first year that they are obliged to skip out on all the free candy, or is there still time for one last hurrah?
But first, they have to figure out what to do about that old, dilapidated house across the street. An old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) lives there, and he terrorizes every child who steps on his lawn, chasing them away and hoarding their kites and tricycles. But when DJ (Mitchel Musso) and his chubby friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) try to retrieve a stray basketball from Nebbercracker's lawn, the old man gets so worked up about it that he falls to the ground, apparently dead—an incident that we see in extreme close-up, from DJ's point of view, after the man grabs him and looks straight into his eyes, and thus straight into ours.
And then, no sooner has the ambulance taken the old man away than the house itself begins to act kind of strange. A fireplace self-ignites, cracks runs through its windows, and the lawn swallows objects that have been left lying in the grass. And that's before the house and the trees around it begin lashing out at people.
Convinced that Nebbercracker's spirit has possessed the house, DJ and Chowder spy on the building from DJ's bedroom and ponder what to do. They also zip across the street to rescue Jenny (Spencer Locke), a bright and entrepreneurial young girl who, while going door-to-door selling last-minute supplies of candy, innocently steps within range of the house and its clutches. Together, and with a bit of advice from the local video-game addict (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder), the kids then set out to defeat the house before it can do any harm to that evening's trick-or-treaters.
With Halloween as its setting, the movie nicely captures that ambiguous point in life when children realize that growing up means losing something that is valuable to them. Most of the time, if children think about what they might lose by growing up, they look forward to losing the burdens of childhood—bossy parents, going to school, not being allowed to stay home on their own without a babysitter. Growing up means independence and freedom from all that. But whereas some customs, like Christmas presents, follow us into adulthood, the ritual of trick-or-treating is specific to childhood—and because it happens only once a year, and because the years seem so long when you're a child, it can be a bit startling for a child on the cusp of maturity to suddenly realize that he or she is no longer one of those kids.
And speaking of age-appropriateness, Monster House may look like the sort of movie that is more or less safe for little kids, but the humour gets a little crude in places. Chowder becomes so obsessed with the possessed house that, when he sleeps over at DJ's place, he never leaves the bedroom to go to the bathroom—so he pees in a bottle instead, a fact that grosses out both Jenny and the babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) when they discover the object. In a later scene, the children finally go inside the house, and they find that it is shaped like the inside of a mouth. Jenny points to an object hanging from the ceiling and says, "That must be the uvula," to which Chowder replies, "Oh, so it's a girl house." Jenny immediately corrects him, but you have to wonder how many kids will ask their parents to explain the joke—and how many parents would rather not have to field such questions.
More troubling is how the film—directed by novice Gil Kenan from a screenplay credited to Corpse Bride's Pamela Pettler and Jack Black veterans Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab—ultimately resolves the question of the house and its identity. Without giving too much away, hopefully, suffice to say that the film shows a remarkable lack of sympathy for the marginalized outsider, plus it is a little unnerving to see a children's film in which one character celebrates the violent end of a bad marriage, and the children go on to hope that this character will find someone nicer, now.
It all makes for a striking contrast with a film like, say, Zathura, where the gradual destruction of the house worked on one level as a metaphor for the end of a marriage and the crumbling apart of the larger family. In that film, the literal and metaphorical destruction was something to be resisted, even reversed if possible—but Monster House positively revels in it. That's not exactly a healthy or mature message to send to kids, no matter how much growing up they've done.Discussion starters
- If you're an adult, did you trick-or-treat when you were a child? How did you feel when you were suddenly too old to do it anymore? If you're a kid, how do you think you'll feel when you're too old for trick-or-treating?
- What does this film say about growing up? Do you think the babysitter remembers being a girl like Jenny once? What do you think the children see when they look at the babysitter and her boyfriend, or at their own parents?
- What does this film say about how we regard the outsiders in our midst? How do our sympathies shift over the course of the film? Does the film encourage us to identify with outsiders, or to pick different outsiders to distrust, or what?
- Do you believe a house can be haunted or possessed? Are ghosts real? Are demons? Discuss.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Monster House is rated PG for scary images and sequences (people being attacked and swallowed by a house), thematic elements, some crude humor (including a boy urinating in a bottle, a dog peeing in a Jack-o'-Lantern, an implicit pun involving the uvula and an unmentioned word for a part of the female anatomy) and brief language (words like "crap", "screwed" and "kiss my hairy butt").
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 07/27/06
Moviegoers have visited many haunted houses over the years. Up those broken stairs, across the cobwebbed front porch, behind that forbidding front door, and in the shadowed rooms beyond those battered window shades, monsters of all kinds have menaced naïve trespassers and screaming captives.
In the animated feature Monster House, there's a temperamental old man (voiced by Steve Buscemi) named Mr. Nebbercracker with a face as haunted as Gollum's and a tendency to shout "Get off my lawwwwn!" at curious neighbors. But Nebbercracker's not the real threat to trespassers. That's what young DJ, his chubby friend Chowder, and their shared schoolboy crush Jenny learn the hard way. It's Nebbercracker's house that's really dangerous, snatching those who get close with its carpeted tongue, gnashing teeth made of splintered timber, its windows flaring like fiery eyes.
There are other dangers as well—especially for parents who think this is just another harmless animated movie for all ages.
I saw the film in a theater packed with families. The animation was inconsistent—dazzling in one scene, sub-par in others. DJ and his friends have distinct personalities, and they live in surprisingly detailed, realistic homes, while that shadowed property across the street is more like a Tim Burton nightmare. At times, the spooky developments recall summer movies of the '80s by Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Robert Zemeckis (The Goonies), but the film never quite reaches those same imaginative heights.
Kids in the audience laughed a lot, shrieking at the sinister structure's aggressive behavior. Adults chuckled at adolescent awkwardness of the young teen characters, but also sometimes laughed in surprise at some rather adult humor. And a couple of children were ushered out in tears because of the intensity of the jolting scares.
Perhaps the most troubling element of the film is its conclusion. How will the heroes stop this wrathful work of architecture? It's difficult to avoid spoilers here. Let's just say that the film has comes to rather alarming conclusions about how to deal with a resentful social outcast. Should we seek to understand the aggravated party and the source of their anger? Should we strive to calm a fiery temper and make some kind of "repair" to a damaged heart? Monster House doesn't consider these options. Instead, the children team up to respond with aggression and deadly force. "Oh, come on … it's just a house," some readers may say to themselves. That's where things get tricky—it's not just a house.
Jenn Wright (Looking Closer) offers a commentary that includes blatant spoilers, but she's very concerned about the film's conclusion. "I know I'm in the minority here, and I'm more than willing to admit that my take on this is extreme, and not likely to be on many people's radars. … I left the theater wondering, Is this a movie about assisted suicide? Commentary on methods of dealing with mental illness? Assisted homicide? … What it says about the soul and mental illness is not just disturbing … it's really, really scary."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "Monster House is more trick than treat. At first glance the impressive computer animation and involvement of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis would seem promising. But don't be fooled … . Despite the clownishness of several characters, this nasty little nightmare-inducer maintains a dark, occult edge and follows the typical horror-movie template. Think Stephen King, not Steven Spielberg."
Christa Banister (Crosswalk), however, enjoyed the film, calling it "silly, frightening fun … a movie that's far more enjoyable than its trailer."
And David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Monster House … has a touch of pathos as we learn the reason behind Nebbercracker's petulance which is fueled by misunderstanding rather than malevolence. Like all good fairy tales the film is, at its heart, a love story … ."
Mainstream critics are similarly impressed with the film's wicked wit.from Film Forum, 08/03/06
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says Monster House "has a sense of wicked humor and perspective amid its cynicism." He praises its "[s]harp, clever dialogue, convincing characterizations, and effectively eerie twists."