As a child of the 80s, there were certain life principles that I learned from television and movies at an early age: Transformers, GI Joe, and He Man taught me that there are clear lines between good and evil, and that the good guys always ALWAYS win. The Neverending Story, Willow, and The Karate Kid taught me that those who seem weak and forgettable can rise up and find the strength to be the heroes which save the day. And E.T., Explorers, and The Goonies taught me that adults don’t really “get” how things really work, and that it’s up to us kids to make things right.
I firmly believe that the success of the Harry Potter books is largely based on J.K. Rowling’s ability to tap into these principles from the 80s and repackage them for today’s generation. I’m surprised that film makers have been so slow in these last few decades to tap into the same formula. Perhaps Monster House, the best film of the summer so far, is a sign that “the 80’s formula” is finally catching on again.
Directed by rookie Gil Kenan (who, according to imdb.com, has no other entertainment credentials whatsoever) and produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, this movie takes everything we loved about the movies of the 80s, and hands it to us in a shiny new computer animated package that is truly a joy to watch.
The premise of the story is simple: There’s a haunted house across the street that is eating anyone who steps on its property, and it’s up to three kids to figure out the secrets of the house, and how to stop it. After all, Halloween is only one day away, and with dozens of kids trick-or-treating on a carnivorous front porch, the death toll would be staggering.
DJ is the movie’s main hero, and the kid that most boys in the theatre will relate to. He’s firmly entrenched in his late-elementary school geekiness, but you can tell that by the time his voice finishes changing, he’ll have settled into that understated coolness that we children of the 80s encapsulate, as we now ease into our early 30s. Chowder is DJ’s best friend, and reminds me of that kid that you always ended up hanging out with, but could never remember why. He can be whiny, obnoxious, and overly competitive, but when it comes down to it, who else is going to share your enthusiasm for the newest issue of Lethargic Comics, or this year’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup?
Jenny represents every girl that we prepubescent boys used to have a crush on. She’s pretty (but not glamorous), slightly more mature than we were, intelligent, and has just enough attitude to intrigue us, scare us, captivate us, and frustrate us, all at the same time. The kinda girl we desperately wanted, but never thought we could have. The kind of girl I ended up marrying (with the exception that my wife actually IS glamorous!).
The cast of supporting characters is just as wonderfully crafted, and just as entertaining to watch. Jon Heder voices a pimply, pizza-delivering geek-guru who, unlike DJ, will never outgrow his love for all things found at a comic convention. Maggie Gyllenhaal voices the babysitter who’s more concerned about her boyfriend than the boys she’s supposed to be watching. And Steve Buscemi voices Mr. Nebbercracker – an old man with a terrible secret.
What astounded me about these animated characters, and this is most readily seen in the character of Chowder, is how REAL they all seemed. The speech patterns, the annoying taunts, the awkward mannerisms, the way they try to wrap their minds around solving this problem – These characters are more believable than most of the kids found in live action films, and that says something about the skill of the animators and the director.
I also love the way the plot of this movie unfolds. You may have thought that you’ve already seen everything there is to see about this movie in the trailers and commercials – trust me, you haven’t seen anything yet. Right from the very beginning, this movie threw me for a loop, and just when you think that you’re headed for the climax and resolution of the story, everything steps up a notch. The twists and turns this movie takes speak to how well this story was crafted, and how well it was marketed to the public.
Some of you may think that this is a movie about children, with a childish storyline, meant to be watched exclusively by children. You are wrong. This movie is for every one of us who grew up in the 80s, being taught those sacred lessons about how the world REALLY works. There are moments when you will be genuinely scared, and moments where you will be genuinely laughing. And by the end of the movie, you will be walking out of the theatre, smiling, with a little more faith that the magic of your childhood is still alive in Hollywood today, and thanking Spielberg and Zemeckis for letting some of that magic shine through in Monster House.