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Thursday, September 28, 2006

MONSTER HOUSE made me regain some hope in 3D animated films

Monster House

I have no idea how I grew to dislike 3D animated films more and more in the past two years, to the point where I would become entirely indifferent to the majority of the 3D animated releases in the cinemas regardless of their box-office performance or critical reception. Pixar films remain a must-watch event for me, yet I would view anything else with scepticism.

Maybe it started with Shrek 2's record-breaking box-office performance back in 2004, a film which I enjoyed, yet could never understand why it would end up becoming one of the top five all-time top-grossing films ever.

Then there was Shark Tale, also released in 2004, a film I was mildly amused by because of the all-star voice cast, and how the characters were made to look as similar as their voice actors as possible. Yet it was ultimately an emotionally hollow film which generated laughter solely from its blatant pop-cultural references and crass humour. There are SOME moments that were enjoyable, but Finding Nemo it ain't.

Last year, I had the misfortune of watching Robots, an incredibly forgettable movie which I couldn't even remember reviewing in this site last year. Once again, the same formula of most 3D animated films were used: (1) Usage of famous Hollywood stars for voice-acting (2) Pop culture references and toilet humour (3) Another 'underdog' or 'fish out of water' tale.

Seeing that annoyingly stupid robot voiced by Robin Williams dancing to the tune of Britney Spears' 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' to destroy his enemies in the end was excruciating, not funny. I almost felt suicidal, and thus I stopped being interested in 3D animated films anymore. And yes, I skipped Madagascar because I was just too disgusted since then.

(All right, Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children is bloody fantastic, but I'm talking about Hollywood releases here)

Yet 3D animated films started becoming some kind of surefire bet for movie studios, any crap they churn out would easily gross more than $100 million in the US domestic box-office, and because of that, more 3D animated films than ever were released this year (to my consternation).

Sure, I don't exactly belong to the target audience, but if I'm not, then why the hell were they throwing in so many of those irritatingly smug pop cultural references if not to earn some cheap laughs from older viewers who are accompanying their kids? Thus I can't see why I cannot be entertained as well. I'm not so snobbish and highbrow to NOT like mainstream films, I normally admonish people who condemn Hollywood, or roll my eyes in annoyance when fellow film students begin telling me that they avoid commercial films completely because they embrace only Antonionis, the Goddards, the Fellinis, the Truffauts, the Tarkovskys, intellectually-stimulating for them, narrowing one's scope for me.

(And that explains why I can actually enjoy Nacho Libre... and even declare DOA: Dead Or Alive as the best videogame adaptation since Mortal Kombat, I don't really expect myself to be impressed that much when I go to the cinemas, especially not when I'm going to see such films.)

What annoyed me most about 3D animated films has to be the aforementioned formula. The desperate use of an all-star cast for voice-acting and your generic 'fish out of water' or 'underdog who triumphs over adversity' story. Never any variety.

Let me look at the 3D animated features I've seen thus far this year. Over The Hedge deviates (very) slightly from the formula, I found it passably entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. On the other hand, I think Cars may be one of the best films of summar 2006. The film was good based on its own merits, a rivetingly good story with a heart, a likable cast of characters which weren't driven solely by the big-name voice actors, it was the execution that was made the film so beautiful, not the amount of Hollywood stars they used to do the voice. Unsurprisingly, Cars is this year's second top-grossing film behind Pirates of the Caribbean 2.

So, the question is, is Monster House, directed by first-timer Gil Kenan, with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis as executive producers, another one of those inferior non-Pixar 3D features that rely solely on the fame of its voice actors and toilet gags? Some references to pop culture and other films that stick out like a sore thumb and that you have to laugh at because other people in the cinemas were laughing? *sigh* Another underdog or fish out of water tale?

Thankfully, no.

Little girl in opening scene of Monster House, bad things will happen to her

It's a haunted house movie (critic James Berardinelli calls it the first animated haunted house movie ever), more similar to last year's Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit (except it's 3D, not stop-motion) than Robots. The story's about three kids, DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso), Chowder (Sam Lerner), and Jenny (Spencer Locke), trying to investigate and rid the neighbourhood of this possessed house right across the street from DJ's home. That possessed house has a nasty habit of 'eating' anything or anyone that ventured nearby, opening its front door and catching its victim with its carpet tongue, while the windows are staring balefully.

The three main kids seem to be some kind of parody of the main characters of Harry Potter. DJ, the hero, Chowder, the worthless comic relief/best buddy, Jenny, the smart gal. The interaction between the three are funny, as DJ and Chowder, about to hit puberty, attempt all kinds of silly things to impress Jenny, while Jenny would use it to her advantage.

The supporting characters are voiced by more familiar actors, but because of their brief appearances, they do not overwhelm the film completely. Maggie Gyllenhaal as their babysitter, Elizabeth. Jason Lee as her jerk boyfriend. Jon Heder as the greatest video game player on the face of the planet, who wears an adult diaper so he can keep on playing games without being interrupted by bathroom breaks. Steve Buscemi as the scary old man, Nebbercracker, who lives in the possessed house. Kathleen Turner is the voice of the house.

Now I won't say that the film is exactly mindblowingly awesome, yet it IS a breath of fresh air. I won't go around recommending it, but it's an entertaining film, exciting towards the end, and unexpectedly touching too. It definitely does not feel as manufactured and empty as most of those 3D animated films I had endured in the past few years, and that's good enough for me. Perhaps if this film is released in a year without a Pixar release, I would've been more affected by it. Still a commendable effort though.

Monster House trailer

You know, I really miss traditional 2D animation. Are the days of Don Bluth gone forever? Can there never be another Golden Era for Disney similar to the one they had in the 90s? I'm pretty tired of 3D animated features, really.