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Even for a 12-year old, D.J. Walters has a particularly overactive imagination. He is convinced that his haggard and crabby neighbor Horace Nebbercracker, who terrorizes all the neighborhood kids, is responsible for Mrs. Nebbercracker's mysterious disappearance. Any toy that touches Nebbercracker's property, promptly disappears, swallowed up by the cavernous house in which Horace lives. D.J. has seen it with his own eyes! But no one believes him, not even his best friend, Chowder. What everyone does not know is D.J. is not imagining things. Everything he's seen is absolutely true and it's about to get much worse than anything D.J could have imagined.
For more about Monster House and the Monster House Blu-ray release, see Monster House Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on August 12, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Nick Cannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jon Heder, Kevin James, Mitchel Musso
Director: Gil Kenan
» See full cast & crew
Monster House Blu-ray Review
“Chowder, your ball just landed in Nebbercracker’s lawn. It doesn't exist anymore.”
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, August 12, 2009
Unless you live in one of those suburban developments where identical houses popped up simultaneously overnight, nearly every neighborhood has one. It stands sunken and menacing in a lot overgrown with weeds and tall grass. Summer heat and winter chills have curled its paint into tiny, yellowing scrolls and perhaps an upstairs window has been boarded up with a garbage bag and a few two-by-fours. To the adults, it's a communal eyesore. "Really," your dad might have said, "someone needs to do something about this." The kids, however, tell tall tales passed down from older siblings. It's haunted, they say. An old one-eyed witch lives there. If you lose a baseball over the picket fence—forget about it—you'll never get it back. The brave or triple-dog-dared might venture to ding-dong-ditch the doorbell, and if successful they become instant legends at lunchtime cafeteria tables. The neighborhood haunted house is a spooky fixture of Americana, and Monster House—a CGI spectacle executively produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg—has a firm, skeletal grasp on the childhood traditions and superstitions that it presents. While the film is geared toward older kids—tweeners, I hear they're calling 'em now—even adults may find this Halloween yarn to be a fond trip down memory lane.
D.J. Walters (Mitchel Musso) is a somewhat nebbish preteen who spends an inordinate amount of time perched behind his telescope, spying on old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscimi), a feisty old coot who lives in the shuttered and disheveled house across the street. Nebbercracker is a neighborhood legend—he killed and ate his wife according to local kids—and D.J. keeps tabs on him with undue vigilance. When Mr. and Mrs. Walters go to a dentistry convention, leaving D.J. in the care of babysitter "Zee" (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her musician boyfriend "Bones" (Jason Lee), strange events begin to unfold across the street. Nebbercracker keels over—apparently dead— when D.J. and his best friend "Chowder" (Sam Lerner) trespass on the property, and suddenly the old man's house takes on a life of its own, snatching up a dog who tries to take a dump on the lawn, devouring the slightly drunk punk rocker Bones, and dispatching with two bumbling cops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) who turn up to investigate. With all authority figures absent, D.J. and Chowder are forced to figure out the mystery on their own, with help from prep- school sweetheart Jenny Bennet (Spencer Locke) and some sage advice by way of soothsaying pizza delivery man "Skull" (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder), who tells them that the house is a "domus mactibilis"—a deadly home.
There are few films that really capture the atmosphere of Halloween—that lonesome blend of chilly autumn air, supernatural indulgence, and the magnificent melancholy of being young and imaginative. E.T. is the best, for my money, Donnie Darko is up there too, and I feel safe adding Monster House somewhere on the lower registers of the list. It's not an instant classic or anything, but the film does capture the awkward pangs of adolescence and place them in a Halloween context that's both nostalgic for us old geezers and new for those presently pubing, their voices cracking and their upper lips sprouting with fuzz.
What I really like about Monster House is that it's never condescending toward kids. So many PG films gloss over the adult realities of life, presenting some sort of absurd, idealized world, but the best kid-flicks are the ones grounded in a mature reality, even if the subject matter is fantastical or supernatural. Both E.T. and The Goonies, for example, wrestle with some complex and weighty issues, and Monster House is the same. Though Bones and the police officers are shown to be alive during the closing credits, we believe throughout the film that they could very well be dead and gone. There are consequences in this world and the film isn't afraid to be more than a little scary. I probably wouldn't show Monster House to children under eight or nine—there are some frightening images, including a dead woman buried under concrete—but older kids will get a kick out of the spooks. Adults will also be entertained, as there are plenty of moments that will fly right over most kids' heads, like Bones trying to get fresh with Zee or Chowder saying "my dad is at the pharmacy and my mom is at the movies with her personal trainer." My favorite line is when Jenny says that the chandelier is the house's uvula, and Chowder replies, "Oh, so it's a girl house."
Monster House uses the same performance capture technology that was used in The Polar Express, and the result is a CG film that's highly lifelike when it comes to the interactions between characters, their environments, and one another. While Pixar is justifiably proud of their 100% hand-animated features, motion capture gives an entirely different feeling altogether. The actors are not simply providing voices, but full performances—you can tell Nebbercracker is Steve Buscimi just by the way he moves. It helps that every part in Monster House is cast perfectly. The three kids are likeable and lovably awkward— Chowder reminds me of a young Jonah Hill—and all of the surrounding actors invest their somewhat stereotyped roles with life and personality. While the film does have its flaws—there are really no "rules" for how the house chooses to act and react—Monster House is a fun Halloween flick that will appeal to both fright-friendly kids and adults who still long to put on superhero masks and carry pillowcases door to door.
Monster House Blu-ray, Video Quality
While not as inherently jaw-dropping as some Pixar productions, Sony Imageworks has given Monster House a 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer that brings director Gil Kenan's vision to life with strong colors and a potent sense of depth. The motion capture performances here work well with a CGI aesthetic that is decidedly stylized and non-photorealistic, giving the film a slightly three dimensional, stop-motion quality. Unlike The Polar Express, which also used performance capture technology, Monster House sidesteps the creepiness of the uncanny valley by giving its characters exaggerated and somewhat asymmetrical features.
The image itself isn't quite up to par with the best CGI films—few moments really wowed me— but the transfer doesn't exhibit any of the issues, like banding or macroblocking, that sometimes plague lesser releases. Black levels are appropriately strong throughout, and the film presents a bold autumnal palette that's pleasingly interrupted by the ghastly neon greens and blues inside the titular monster house. If I have one overriding complaint, it's that the image isn't quite as sharp as it could be. While this is indeed a digital-to-digital transfer, the filmmakers decided to add a thin layer of artificial grain in post-production. Whether this was to keep the film from appearing too clinical, or just to add a cinematic flair, I'm not sure, but the grain is occasionally noticeable and has a tendency to soften the overall look.
Monster House Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Monster House creaks and groans on Blu-ray with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track that flat-out trumps the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's also included. When I first started the film, I hastily assumed the PCM track would be the default—never assume—and I wondered why the mix sounded conspicuously flat, with voices that were potted way too low. I quickly realized my mistake and switched to the PCM track, revealing an increased dynamic range and vocal work that's much better balanced. From the start, the film has a lively mix that deftly combines ambience, effects, voices, and score. Listen to fallen leaves as they skitter across suburban sidewalks, to fire crackling ominously in the rear channels, and to the deep LFE quaking of the house as it shifts on its foundation. Channel movements are subtle and effective, especially when the kids are trapped inside the basement of the house. With many animated films, it sounds obvious that the voice actors were stuck inside a studio booth, but Monster House's performance capture tech allowed the filmmakers to record movement and voice simultaneously, and the added physicality really comes across in the film's stellar voice work. Finally, Douglas Pipes' fantastic score is a throwback to big Hollywood orchestration, immersing the film in deep horns and frantic, slithering strings.
Monster House Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Inside Monster House (SD, 24:40 total)
This series of seven behind-the-scenes featurettes is entertaining and complete, covering nearly every aspect of the film's production. Imaginary Heroes explores some of the early conceptual artwork of the film, Beginner's Luck shows how fortunate first-time director Gil Kenan was to nab all of his wish-list actors, and The Best of Friends shows the off- stage camaraderie that developed between the three young stars. Lots of Dots and Black Box Theater are where things really start to get interesting though, as both segments examine the film's extensive use of motion capture technology. It's pretty funny to see the actors in their wetsuit-like getups, covered with tracking balls—they look like they either just walked off the set of Tron or they just finished playing a game of laser tag. And last but not least, Making it Real and Did You Hear That? provide inside looks at the animation process and the intensive research that went into the sound design. Featuring interviews with just about everyone involved with the film—with the notable exception of Steven Spielberg—this is one behind-the-scenes special that's definitely worth watching.
Evolution of a Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker (SD, 20:00)
Director Gil Kenan explains the four-step process of the film's creation, from the extensive, animated storyboards to the motion capture, virtual camera layouts, and final animated compositions. Afterward, we get to see the film's opening scene through the raw footage from each step.
The Art of Monster House (1080p)
Divided into three categories—Conceptual Art, People, and Places and Things—this gallery contains approximately 170 images, from the earliest sketches to pre-visualization paintings and photographs of clay models.
Commentary by the Filmmakers
And who are "the filmmakers?" Well, this track never really tells you. Unless you've researched the film on IMDB or have watched the seven-part "making-of" documentary and can match faces to voices, you won't have a clue who's talking. Rather than getting all the filmmakers together in one screening room to discuss the film as a group, this track features snippets from individual interviews that are cobbled together over the film in a hodgepodge of interesting, but disjointed information. The speakers are never identified, and the constant hopping from one voice to another gets tiresome after a while. While there's plenty of info here there's simply too much cutting and pasting for it to be listenable. You'd be better off watching the exhaustive "Inside Monster House" documentary.
Monster House Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
When I was nine years old I would have loved a film like Monster House, which serves up a great adventure peppered with a few largely innocuous scares. Younger children with a lower tolerance for frightening imagery probably shouldn't watch, but if you've got an older kid who has yet to join the personality-draining ranks of Miley and the Jonas Bros, Monster House is a good bet for some quality, Friday-night family entertainment. Recommended.
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