There’s no question that after your first viewing of Monster House, it stays with you. Perhaps it’s the chilling story, the unsettling animation, or the positively horrifying opening sequence. Each of these reasons contribute to making this film an unforgettable watch. While I feel that most of the jokes and scares are quite juvenile, understandably being a children’s film, there is a certain nostalgic charm to them.
Is there anything more beautiful or deeply upsetting than a child’s laughter? Monster House opens on a Fall day and a single amber colored leaf clinging to a branch. With a sudden gust of wind, the leaf is swept away and the camera follows. A small child on a tricycle whizzes into view, happily singing to herself as she hurtles down the footpath. All seems well as her song continues, the leaf dancing about her, and the golden sunset of Fall fills our screen. Then it stops. Her song is cut short, her laughter gone, the amber leaf abandoned on the ground. Slowly we pan backwards to the child. She’s stuck in the tangled grass of the only unkempt lawn on the street. Behind her, barren dark trees loom unlike the other trees that are bursting with color. She meekly pushes her peddles as her singing slowly dies away. She looks over at the house she’s become trapped in front of. Its windows mismatched, shingles broken, paint peeling and dirty. You would expect a house as desolate as this to be abandoned.
And then the latch turns, the doorknob rattles furiously, the door is yanked back violently revealing a swallowing darkness. Slowly a face emerges.
A strong and chilling opening unfortunately did not set a precedent for the rest of this film. I saw so much potential for a genuinely frightening and funny movie, but I can honestly say that Monster House didn’t live up to what it could have been. The use of blending motion capture animation and traditional 3D animation, while innovative, left something to be desired. I will admit that the animation style achieved the effect of unnerving the viewer, though something about the characters’ off kilter proportions of body styles and overly rounded heads, while comically cartoonish, didn’t measure up to the tangible personality found in stop motion animation. Monster House’s attempt at a recreation of this animation style was, in my opinion, a poor imitation.
The story of Monster House following its strong beginning was just as unsatisfying to watch as the animation. The moment the elderly inhabitant of the Monster House screams “Get off my lawn!” the spell is broken and any real fear we felt up to this moment vanishes. Soon we are introduced to DJ, the protagonist, who spends his days meticulously spying on and noting every action of his elderly neighbor Mr. Nebbercracker, going so far as to record his theft of a child’s tricycle in a journal on his desk.
DJ is a classic American every-day-boy who has no real personality of his own other than being embarrassed by his parents and a bully to his friends. I can only assume his character was made this way so that a wide variety of children could project themselves onto him. Subsequently, his best friend Charles, nicknamed Chowder, is the mandatory comic relief character who takes the brunt of DJ’s abuse and Jenny Bennet, a private school student, who is nearly devoured by the Monster House, is the classic Smart Girl/Love Interest the boys fight over.
The classic boy/boy/girl trio has been implemented well in other mediums when the characters are graced with having some semblance of an identity outside of the basic cliche. DJ is nothing more than the default hero character, fighting the monster because none of the adults believe him. Chowder provides little value to the trio outside of being a honorary rival for Jenny’s affections. Every minute of Chowder’s screen time is punctuated by jokes about either pee, flatulence, or a worrying misunderstanding of the female anatomy. And finally Jenny, class president of an elite private school, who is clearly the intellectual superior of the group, is relegated to little more than a trophy for DJ to inevitably win after he saves the day.
While this trope has been used in many films spanning different genres, I can’t help but feel it is done to death and was an unnecessary aspect to this movie. This cliche is just one of many forced down our throats as we are confronted with Absentee Parents, the Bad Babysitter, Incompetent Police Officers, The Villain who was really a Good Guy all along and the main character dealing with the first signs of puberty. The concept of puberty presented in the film is most definitely a child’s understanding of it as it is shown by DJ’s voice cracking once at the beginning of the film as well as saying he is going through “lots and lots of puberty”.
In this film, it being a children’s ‘Horror Comedy’, we are shown various scares that ultimately fall flat such as the children characters and adults characters alike being lured to their apparent deaths with their toys Nebbercracker has stolen through the years, only to reveal they were all alive and well at the end of the movie. Tone deaf jokes are also shoehorned in like Jenny pointing out a dangling Chandelier stating it must be the Uvula and Chowder responding “So its a girl house!”. I believe this attempt at comedy was too anatomically correct, or incorrect for that matter, for a child to appreciate and far too immature for an adult to find amusing.
Ultimately I would say most children would enjoy this movie around Halloween, but will feel little desire to watch it any other time of the year. Similarly, I believe that Monster House can be enjoyed by an adult through a nostalgic lens during a spooky binge session on Netflix, but I personally have found that the movie holds very little independent re-watch value of its own. I most likely will stick on Monster House as it nears October 31st and then quickly bury it until Fall comes back around.