Once an impressive novelty that almost always guaranteed huge box office returns, the volume of computer animated movies spiked upwards in 2006, which saw the release of no fewer than twelve all-digital feature cartoons. Amid this glut of similar product, half the titles were financial disappointments. One of the unfortunate victims was Monster House from Sony Pictures Imageworks, a haunted house tale with a Halloween setting that the studio marketing people had the brilliant idea of releasing in July. The film debuted to little buzz and underwhelming business, and was soon lost in the wake of the six further CGI productions to follow. It's a shame, because the movie has some smart writing, snappy directing, and a lot of heart. Also, as one of the few feature cartoons not about talking animals, it's something of a refreshing change of pace.
It's Halloween morning and 13 year-old D.J. is, like most days, obsessively spying on the creepy old guy who lives across the street. Mean Mr. Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) has a reputation for scaring the bejeezus out of any kids who make the mistake of stepping on or near his property. When D.J.'s doofus friend Chowder stops by for a visit, the slow-witted kid makes the mistake of bouncing his new basketball onto Nebbercracker's lawn. This seemingly innocent incident leads to an unfortunate chain of events culminating in the discovery that the old man's home is haunted and the house itself has evil intentions against anyone in its vicinity. With the adults ignoring their pleas for help, D.J., Chowder, and new friend Jenny have only a few hours to take action and prevent the monster house from gobbling up the waves of unknowing trick-or-treaters sure to be lured into its trap that night.
Produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Monster House uses the same motion-capture animation technique as Zemeckis' The Polar Express. The stylistic design of the two films is very different however, with much less emphasis on photo-realism this time around. The animation is suitably impressive, but the human characters have a decidedly cartoonish appearance that actually makes them more effective and much less creepy than the soulless automatons of that Christmas picture. Something about their mouths still doesn't look right, though.
First-time director Gil Kenan drives the film with very real, likeable characters, smart dialogue, and brisk pacing. The movie is scary and suspenseful, at a PG-level. It's probably not appropriate for very young children, but those 10 and older should eat it up. The plot has a few lapses in internal logic (where are all the neighbors when this gigantic evil house is tromping down the street?) and the pyrotechnics at the end are perhaps a bit much, but Monster House is a tremendously fun movie that deserved better recognition than it got.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Monster House debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Monster House Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. The disc contains only the standard 2D version of the movie, with no attempt to replicate the 3D version that played in selected digital cinemas.
With an all-CGI digitally animated film like this, we expect the picture quality to look great, especially in High Definition. Sure enough, Monster House is sharp and detailed, with terrific reproduction of precisely controlled colors. The picture is surprisingly grainy, but this appears to be an intentional artistic effect that contributes to the spooky atmosphere. Some minor color banding is present in a few scenes, but it's generally not serious enough to be too distracting. Likewise, a few scenes seemed like they might be having digital compression problems, though this may just be spotty application of the artificial grain (real grain wouldn't cluster in certain parts of a shot or around objects in motion but not the rest of the frame, which is an attribute of video noise and sometimes happens here). Nit-picks aside, this disc looks very nice.
The Monster House Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. The PCM track is superb, with terrific fidelity, crisp sound effects, and monstrously deep bass. Surround activity is aggressive and transparently imaged to create an immersive, fully-convincing atmosphere. This is one of the best soundtracks I've heard on either High-Def format. It deserves high marks all around.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, or Thai.
Alternate language tracks - French or Korean DD 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this Blu-ray title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
- Filmmaker Commentary - Commentary from director Gil Kenan is interspersed with separately recorded interviews by several unidentified participants. There's a lot of interesting information imparted here, but the lack of identification is annoying.
- Inside Monster House (25 min.) – A pretty good making-of documentary comprised of 7 short featurettes. Covered topics include the motion capture technique, character development, casting, animation, and sound design. Most interesting is a look at how the film's Director of Photography uses virtual cameras to compose his shots in a 3D environment.
- Evolution of a Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker (20 min.) – A look at the movie's opening scene as it went through several phases of development: animated storyboards, performance capture, crude CG, more refined CG, and finished product. At the end, a side-by-side comparison is provided, however the Blu-ray does not offer the multi-angle ability to toggle between the various stages as is available on the DVD.
- The Art of Monster House - Still galleries featuring conceptual art, people, places and things. Much of the art is very cool. A look at some unproduced scenes is also included.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns. Please note that due to an error in the Sony encoder used to author the disc, blacker-than-black and whiter-than-white portions of the video signal have been clipped, essentially rendering the Brightness and Contrast calibration patterns useless.
Undeservedly overlooked during its theatrical release, Monster House has a new chance to find an audience on home video. It's a fun movie and the Blu-ray edition has very good High Definition picture quality, excellent sound, and some pretty good bonus features, making it a great package all around. Highly recommended.
The Polar Express (HD DVD)
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution – DVDTalk's HD Column
Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player