Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Movie Chat: Monster House

Monster House

I'm not the biggest fan of these CGI animated movies (which is a nice, non-confrontational way of saying that Shrek makes my eyes bleed), so I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I did. It's a fully-realized, note-perfect, nicely cast homage to Joe Dante's 1980s movies, like Gremlins and The 'burbs, set in a Suburban America somewhere between E.T.'s and A Nightmare on Elm Street's.

Still, though, by the last half of the movie, the CGI had gotten on my nerves.

Since they were making a movie that owed so much in terms of plot, characters, tone, and style to those Dante movies, I wonder why they didn't, you know, use some of the same techniques - live actors, models, puppets, with computer FX to tie everything together. While I was watching it, I couldn't help thinking that the choice to use CGI was an empty one - aesthetically, at least. I mean, I suppose that the CGI allowed them to show the monster and the "actors" in the screen at the same time without any line separating FX from "Real People", but, for me, it wasn't really worth it. There's lots of impressive moviemaking on display, but every few seconds something would happen that would drive home the point that I was watching little computer people in a little computer world. For instance, when the two kids play basketball, the bounce of the ball just seemed off somehow.

It also doesn't help that most of the scenes inside the monster house look like they could be taken out of a junior version of the Alone in the Dark video game.

It's not like this movie is aimed at little kids (it has a PG rating for scary situations, crude humor, and "brief language"), who have been trained by Pixar to respond only to shiny, flashy, loud computer graphics. If I were 12 years old, I would definitely appreciate being able to watch a flesh-and-blood Maggie Gyllenhaal in a tight, punk rock T-shirt.

Slightly more seriously, by going with computer animated actors, they lose the, um, liveliness that a living, breathing performer brings to a horror movie. With horror movies, more so than with any other kind of movie, I want to have a direct, emotional connection with the actors. That's why Jennifer Connelly is so great in a movie like Dark Water: she opens up to the camera and we can read and respond to all the subtle - and not so subtle - shifts in emotion on her face. She lets us tune into her character's vulnerability and gives us the illusion that there's actual human emotions at stake.

So my thinking here is that the decision to use CGI here is not so much a creative choice as a marketing one: it lets an otherwise conventional movie stand out from the crowd and it gives some filmmakers a chance to show off their latest toys. (Polar Express, anyone?)

Now, compare Monster House to A Scanner Darkly, where, even if it doesn't work for you, the choice to go with rotoscope animation was made for a substantive, creative reason - it's meant to get across the way that doing drugs can affect your perception of the real world.

Heck, compare Monster House to Over the Hedge, where the choice to go with animation makes sense because actual raccoons don't take direction that well.

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