Monster House

Monster House (2006)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Mitchell Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke, Steve Buscemi, Jason Lee
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Photo Gallery

When trailers for "Monster House" first appeared the film didn't really ring much of a bell with me. I found it way too dark and ominous for young children and for myself, it simply didn't have the appeal of, say, a Pixar movie. Now Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has delivered a Blu-Ray version of the film that I eagerly took to the test, if only to see how the computer generated imagery holds up.

D. J. (Mitchell Musso) is living across the street from a truly scary house. The house and its owner Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), have a strange attraction on the roughly 10-year old boy and he spends a lot of time recording events and observing the old dilapidated house with his spyglass. Mr. Nebbercracker is a grumpy old guy, who hates children and as soon as anyone dares to set foot on his lawn, he will come out, screaming.

One day D.J.'s friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) accidentally kicks the ball on Nebbercracker's lawn and while D. J. is trying to sneak over to get it, the old man catches him, screams at him and has a heart attack!

But now with Nebbercracker gone, the house takes on a personality of its own and as D. J. and Chowder observe, it seems as if the house itself is alive. Together with Jenny (Spencer Locke) they decide to find out what is really going on inside this "Monster House."

While it is not in the same league as the Pixar fare, "Monster House" does have its qualities and a good number of highlights. Most notably the film is not nearly as dark and brooding as the trailers suggested and I found my 6-year old thoroughly enjoying this film from the first to the last minute.

The film uses the same technique that was put to good use in "The Polar Express" some time ago, digitally capturing the movements of real actors and then applying them to computer generated models. The result is oftentimes wonderfully charming, creating characters that do behave more like real people than animated characters. Chowder in particular has been exceedingly well acted and his presence lights up the screen every time his in a scene. There are a number of seemingly hand-animated shots in there as well – Zee's awkward dancing and head-banging shot comes to mind – which do not quite match the quality of others setups, but they are far and in-between.

The film goes an interesting route with its art direction, trying to create something that is in the realm somewhere between high end CGI and traditional stop-motion animation. The characters themselves resemble very nicely stop motion figures but move and behave in a way that is, of course, the domain of motion capture. In my mind it creates a clash at times when the character acting is super-real but the visual presentation is not and hair looks like that of a plastic doll. Nonetheless, it does have its appeal and works pretty well overall.

The story of the film is also wonderfully plotted and offers up not only the ominous Monster House storyline, but adds to it a nice human emotional touch to it about halfway through the film. To me, this made a huge difference and I immediately liked the film – and its characters – a lot more. It was a real turning point in the film where it turns from a simple "Goosebumps"-type story into something much deeper.

Produced in the digital domain I was eager to see what this high definition version would look like and I was not disappointed. "Monster House" makes its Blu-Ray debut in style, to say the least. Viewers may be a bit surprised at first to find a hint of grain in the transfer, but be advised that this is an artistic decision and has been deliberately added by the filmmakers to take away some of the sterility often associated with computer generated imagery.
The most striking thing about this transfer is of course the sharpness and level of detail, combined with an amazing color reproduction of the film's atmospheric imagery. It is easy to over-saturate a shot when it's computer generated but here we have something that looks very moody and well balanced, yet at the same time incredibly colorful with tinges and hues that leap off the screen.
The overall sharpness of the transfer is stunning, bringing out every nook and cranny in the geometry while the solid black level makes sure that shadows and tones are properly running the entire gamut of their palette. Shadows are finely delineated adding further to the incredible look of this film.

The audio on the disc is… magnetic. I say that because the uncompressed PCM 5.1 track on this disc is simply amazing and I could not stop listening for tiny little details in the mix. The mix itself is extremely aggressive and dynamic and there is plenty to discover as sound effects are used throughout the sound field at almost all times. The PCM track marvelously brings it all to live and you will be impressed, no doubt, at how magnificent this sound mix is adding to the overall presentation and effect of the movie as a whole. 5.1 channel Dolby Digital tracks in English, French and Korean of all things, are also included. I honestly found Sony's choice of languages always a bit dubious, especially when something as obligatory as a Spanish language track is replaced by a Korean one, but hey, I'm sure they have their reasoning for doing this. The disc also contains a wide variety of subtitles in all languages imaginable.

The release also contains a filmmakers commentary that covers many of the production information of the movie. It features director Gil Kenan along with a slew of other people, none of who is identified on the packaging or during the track. It makes it hard to place particular comments into context when you don't know who said what and whether who you're listening to is one of the actors or a crew member. Fully edited commentary tracks have become the norm over the past years – where, oh where, are the days of a real commentary track that was recorded while the commentators actually viewed the film in question? – and I think it is not always for the better. These tracks are certainly easier to produce because all kinds of soundbites from interviews, EPKs and interviews can be used and reused here, but in too many instances these kinds of tracks lose their immediacy. There is just something about a triggered memory of a director or actor while he's watching a film they made some time ago.

Although Blu-Ray discs are currently still seriously strapped for memory, Sony has added a few bonus materials on the release, such as a selection of featurettes covering the making of the movie. They are interesting and informative but cover mostly the same ground as seen in countless other featurettes before. The true highlights among them are the segments about the voice casting and the motion capturing.

In "Evolution Of A Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker" you get a close-up look how a scene from the movie has been put together. From the initial idea and concept art and storyboards, to the creation of the 3D models, animation, texturing etc. all the way to the final rendering as it appears in the movie, here you get a real feel for the process that takes place to bring a film like this to life.

A Photo Gallery is also included, containing a lot of pre-production art as well as production art and images from the film.

"Monster House" turned out a much better and enjoyable film than I expected. The Blu-Ray disc shines and gives you a presentation of the film that is unparalleled. Images of such clarity and detail have hardly been seen in home theaters so brace yourself for a thrill ride here. You just may want to watch it again, and again, and again.