Before Monster House had there been a mainstream animated film that strayed so far from the tropes of the genre? I am sure one could cite The Nightmare Before Christmas but even that film eventually plays nice with what audiences expect from animated films. No, it was 2006's Monster House that, on the heels of The Incredibles two years before it, pushed the genre of animation in a bold new direction. The look, the story, the pacing, and the overall mood of Monster House was both old, new and completely unlike anything done in the medium of animation before. In short, Monster House is responsible for opening up the genre, it paved the way for more daring films in the medium, it's set-up was very much like a independent horror film, and it, surprisingly, never had a sequel.
Monster House, like most horror that is geared for younger people, features three different friends thrown together for the common good of saving something. In the film, DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), Chowder (Sam Lerner) and Jenny (Spencer Locke) discover that a creepy home in their neighborhood is actually a monster. Notice that I didn't say there were monsters in the house. The actual house is the monster as the title indicates. Surely, this trope is nothing new but in the realm of animation it certainly was. Now, upon this revelation, our three heroes realize that the house has a goal: on Halloween night it is going to devour the trick 'r treaters. Naturally, DJ, Chowder, and Jenny must stop this. This of course requires them to enter the house and, literally, go into the bowels of it to stop the possible carnage. As you can guess, this $75 million dollar film ultimately plays out the way that you expect it might. However, that doesn't stop it from being weird, mind blowing, and utterly irreverent along the way.
Monster House Opened Up the Kid's Animation Genre
Animation, by and large, features normally inanimate objects talking to each other. The objects generally have a simple goal. In achieving this goal they often use aspects of their inanimate nature to do this. For example, if a phone can talk, it might wrap up a potential villain in it's cord. Monster House employs this in regards to the character of the film's title. This is to be expected. DJ, Chowder and Jenny are seen as intruders that are planning to upend it's ultimate goal. However, our main characters are human. Despite being animated, they've got to play by the rules of the real, physical world. At the same time, they're young kids so they've also got that sense of naïveté to deal with. All of this plays to great effect in Monster House. Coupled with the cannibalistic nature of the home, this film doesn't have the usual schmaltz that comes with mainstream animated fare. Okay, the subject matter isn't Persepolis, but it's not Toy Story either. This isn't a slight on that or other animated films with similar themes. In many ways the Toy Story movies tackle bigger issues. Monster House is just in a class by itself. With its real characters facing real world problems, coupled with the fantastical nature of the supernatural house they are up against, this movie has a surreal quality to it that can't be overstated. While not a massive hit on the level of Pixar films, Monster House was no doubt a hit. It broadened what could be done in this genre of film. Ultimately, the films it spawned would also benefit more. All of them owing a debt of gratitude to Monster House whose ideas and themes no doubt infected their DNA.
Monster House Paved the Way for Films like Coraline, ParaNorman and more...
Released in 2006, Monster House with its irreverent zeal seamed to be out of place in the animation landscape of that time. Other films released that year were Open Season, Over the Hedge, and Ice Age: The Meltdown. There were two animated films released that year that shared a similar desire to shake things up in the medium. They were A Scanner Darkly and Renaissance. While these films really pushed what could be done in the animated space, they weren't made with the mainstream intentions of Monster House. With a budget of $18 million and a box office haul of $1.8 million, Renaissance was simply a film that didn't find its intended audience in a monetary way. As for A Scanner Darkly, this Keanu Reeves led vehicle didn't make more than $8 million worldwide. Even with Reeves' clout behind it, A Scanner Darkly just didn't didn't connect with audiences.
Monster House would be alone in this class as a truly genre bending film. It's effect wouldn't be felt until a couple of years later with the release of Coraline in 2009. That film would cost $60 million and rake in over $120 million worldwide. It may have been based on a novel by Neil Gaiman but just because something has source material, that doesn't always guarantee that it's going to reap financial rewards (see Arthur and the Invisibles). The same studio that made Coraline, Laika, would also go on to make another supernatural tale with ParaNorman in 2012. On a similar budget, that film would bring in $107 million at the global box office. The themes in this movie can be best be described as irreverent and adult. Oftentimes, mainstream American animated fare that is smart, is said to be for kids and adults. ParaNorman and Coraline would actually serve adults first while dazzling kids with visuals and a solid story. This Monster House brand of entertainment would also present itself in even more traditional Laika produced stories like The Boxtrolls in 2014 and Kubo and the Two Strings in 2016, respectively.
Monster House is Paced Like an Indy Horror Film
Also separating Monster House is it's story set-up and pacing. Looking at the plot of the film, the majority of it takes place in the Monster House itself, the neighborhood, and a few other locations. Obviously, this film just can't show those locations. By it's very design, Monster House has to feature a certain amount of thrills and chills. Within those locations is where the fantastical nature of the film is allowed to grow and expand. However, if you just look at the "sets and locations" of Monster House, the film doesn't really open itself up to the outside world. That ultimately gives it a claustrophobic feel that really plays well for the viewer. As we watch DJ, Chowder and Jenny try and stop the paranormal goings on on the block, we feel the sense of urgency that only they seem to have uncovered. This works on an even deeper level because they know they must act, but they are constrained by the fact that they only kids. They want to involve adults and the authorities but that would mean inviting the outside world in. They know what the Monster House is capable of. This creates a circular loop of actions and reactions that, ultimately, can't be contained by our main characters. For viewers this is part of the fun because it's in this moment that Monster House can't be contained. We get to really see all the hard work that went into this fright-filled extravaganza. Yet, in the end, Monster House goes back to its barebones, simple story, with minimal sets and strong characterizations. The closest thing I can liken it to is John Carpenter's Halloween. With it's sparse use of big set pieces and reliance on characterization, Monster House is both big and small in both heart and FX laden theatrics.
Monster House Surprisingly Never had a Sequel
Made for $75 million, Monster House would go on to make $140 worldwide. There was a even a Monster House video game for the now retro-cool Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS. Monster House was nominated for numerous awards and it was received very favorably by viewers and critics alike. All of this begs the question why was there never a sequel? The movie, while groundbreaking, unique and game-changing, does strike all the boxes of a 4 quadrant film. That it can appeal to all the major demographics of moviegoers seems to make it ripe for a sequel. At one time there seems like there were rumblings of a sequel but to this day that hasn't come to pass. In fact Monster House, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, seems to have a cult of cool behind it. There are fan videos and other pieces of content that show just how deep the interest in this film goes. The simple reason for why there's been no sequel could be a matter of dollars and cents. Perhaps the numbers Monster House put up at the box office just didn't merit a sequel. Costs for motion capture films have invariably risen since 1996. Or, maybe the people involved couldn't get a story together to match the original film? With animation opening up with movies like Coraline and ParaNorman, the bar for another Monster House would be quite high. This film may have been an unwitting victim of its own ingenuity.
Whatever the case, Monster House exists. It is the kind of movie that is a spooky, Halloween classic, much like the warm, fuzzy filled The Polar Express is to Christmas. With its odd wit, interesting storytelling, and ability turn aspects of animation on its ear, Monster House not only changed a genre but it's stood the test of time.