We are in a golden age of cinema right now—the golden age of computer-generated (CG) animation. Every year brings a new breakthrough in technology or storytelling. It is fast coming into its own as an art form with an ability to take well-worn film genres—plus bits of grammar and technique refined over a century—and make it all seem new again, simply by translating it into a new medium. Already Pixar is building a body of work than rivals Disney in its pioneering heyday (the 30’s and 40’s); and there are now so many new CG animated features released each year that when we go to see one in a theater, all the previews are for other movies of the same ilk.
Pixar’s Cars and Sony’s Monster House were the two that stood out this summer, and I was much more impressed with the latter. A basic haunted house story that’s way too scary for tots, Monster House held me almost to the end, when its need to hit all the notes of a conventional action/suspense climax finally wore me down a little.
The title structure is a demonic eyesore in an otherwise pleasant suburban neighborhood, situated on a lot right across the street from our young hero D.J. (voiced by Mitchel Musso). All the neighborhood kids are frightened to play near it; if they lose a basketball or even so much as set foot on its lawn, old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) will storm out, (“Get away from my house!”) shoo them away and punish their trespassing by stealing any toys they leave behind. When D.J. thinks that sole proprietor Nebbercracker has died from a heart attack, he becomes convinced (and rightly so) that the house is angry and wants to punish him. It’s Halloween eve and D.J.s parents are away on a trip. Under the not so watchful eye of babysitter Zee and her beer-swilling loser of a boyfriend Bones (wonderfully voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jason Lee), D.J. enlists the aid of best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and new girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) to help him destroy the house.
Others have written ably about the metaphoric subtext in Monster House—the onset of puberty, with all the apprehension it entails—so I’ll take a more mundane approach and just add that our triad of young heroes, D.J., Chowder and Jenny, are a continuation of that same sturdy threesome (two boys and a girl) that has always served stories of escapist adventure so well; though not as intrinsically interesting, they continue a long tradition that started with Tom, Huck and Becky and continued with Luke, Han and Leia (when they were onscreen together) and, most recently, Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series.
But it’s not the tale that ultimately dazzles, it’s the telling. The character animation in Monster House amazes. Director Gil Kenan and the gang that did The Polar Express design and animate their human characters with a richness that rivals Pixar’s The Incredibles—only they seem to have done it by a reverse method. Pixar builds their characters up—they have roots in a purer style of drawing. Simply put, the company had to evolve to the point where it could render human characters as stylized yet lifelike as their other creations—a zenith the company finally achieved with The Incredibles. The journey began with 1995’s Toy Story, where the playthings’ stiff joints and plastic surfaces worked with computer animation’s limitations instead of resisting them. Next came the hard exoskeletons in A Bug’s Life; then Pixar took a slight detour in Monsters, Inc. that allowed them to work on all manner of creatures and to finally solve some longstanding problems (such as lifelike, CG-rendered hair), before graduating to the aquatic inhabitants of Finding Nemo, which were recognizably earthly, albeit with limited dexterity and scaly surfaces. Finally, Pixar reached its goal with the marvelous human character designs of The Incredibles. Even here, though, single characters are designed from the inside out. Pixar’s character-building process starts with a skeletal structure, then adds muscles and fat, then skin, then clothing.
Pixar’s progress toward believably organic characters was interrupted this summer with Cars. The movie posits a world inhabited exclusively by anthropomorphic modes of transportation, which is problematic considering the civilization depicted onscreen couldn’t have been built without opposable thumbs. That this half-baked movie works at all is a testament to Pixar’s showmanship and techical brilliance. The landscapes are especially breathtaking—America as seen from the road. But the movie’s nostalgic ode to the Route 66 driving culture of yesteryear represents a rare instance of Pixar doing something that just feels forced—straining to suggest depth that isn’t there. It might sound silly to complain about a lack of humanism in a movie about vehicles, but that lack was never evident when Pixar dealt with toys, bugs and fish.
The charaterizations in Monster House seem a reversal of Pixar’s method. First they filmed live actors with a motion-capture process, then laid the characters over them. This is a more high-tech version of Rotoscoping, an animated process (invented in the 30s, but popularized in the 70s via such “adult” cartoon features as Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings) that’s probably closer to tracing than traditional animation. Until Monster House, the most notable use of CG rotoscoping was The Polar Express. But that movie’s supposedly human characters looked eerie and unpleasant, like mannequins come to life. The Monster House animators pinch and pull the motion-captured actors into something more like a caricature. It really works.
More than the character animation, it is the movie’s clever mimicry of live-action films that is so fascinating. Monster House has a century of cinematic history behind it. That’s 100 years of two dimensional motion picture photography, with all its limitations, and all the visual devices which were invented to surmount those limitations: rack focuses, flattened-out zoom effects, staccato shutter effects like the ones showcased in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Monster House copies all these techniques and more. That it applies them to such a well-worn story is part of its innovation; it turns the movie into a kind of meta-filmmaking, something that might make an imaginary meta-director—like the one Pauline Kael saw in Brian De Palma—ecstatic and gleeful. Monster House takes techniques and elements you’ve seen a million times and makes them fresh. This must be how some of the first moviegoers felt while watching silent, black-and-white footage of, say, a train pulling into a station; a real train might have been nearby, but the depiction was much more enthralling.