In a year (2006) when the holiday season seems overrun by a glut of virtually identical CGI talking animals films The Ant Bully (2006), Barnyard (2006), Flushed Away (2006), Happy Feet (2006), Open Season (2006), Over the Hedge (2006) and The Wild (2006) Monster House proved a refreshing delight that stood out above the rest of the crowd. While most of these other films seemed determined to irritate with cutsie talking animals doing pop culture gags and mimicking songs or fall into over-used clichés, Monster House by comparison comes across as warm, original and quite delightful.
Monster House was made by debuting director Gil Kenan. In Kenans hands, the action comes with a wonderful cinematic flourish. His animated camera has an amazing fluidity and the ability to move through a scene into perfectly framed emotional poignance something that comes with far greater dramatic effect than many live-action films. There is a marvellous climax with the three characters fighting the ambulatory house and taking it on with a crane, where Gil Kenans camera leaps into all manner of swoops and dives.
In tone, Monster House falls somewhere between the comic grotesque of a Tim Burton film like Beetlejuice (1988) or The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and the childrens adventure of something like the Spielberg-produced The Goonies (1985) or Stand By Me (1986) indeed you would almost swear that the character of Chowder was copied from Jerry OConnells Vern in the latter. The film is appealingly well written, even decidedly adult in its sense of humour at times one wonders how lines like This must be the uvula, You mean its a girl house? managed to get past the US censor. Although being a family film, Monster House cannot go as far as killing characters off and the end coda brings everybody devoured by the house back to life.
Perhaps the greatest delight about Monster House is the characters who come with a genuine charm and are nowhere near the easy comic relief characters that usually appear in animated family movies. These range from the babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a bored slacker attitude, blackmailing the hero the moment his parents are out the door; the girl scout with snappy capitalistic sensibilities who turns up on the doorstep ready to cut a deal for candy with Maggie Gyllenhaals babysitter; the fat kid and his hilariously geekish enthusiasms, especially the scene where he tries to act suave and charming in front of Jenny; the overenthusiastic rookie cop who models his beat cop policing on action movie poses; Nebbercracker who has an uncanny resemblance to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings; and the videogame geek, voiced by no less than Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) fame. The filmmakers have made great effort to create three-dimensional characters that have a refreshing modern cynicism and a great likeability in their foibles. One of the considerable surprises about the film is also its reversal of sympathies for the character that it initially depicts as the villain.