Let's be reasonable. Those big-headed mascot-looking characters are no worse than Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters. Alfalfa (whose name in the movie is D.J.) reminds me of Hogarth from Iron Giant, without the "loner genius" contention. This kid has a friend (Chowder, who resembles King of the Hill's Bobby) and he's just as geeky as D.J., if not more so. The rapport between the two boys works on a different part of your brain than the "boy and his dog" dynamic in Iron Giant, and it works just as well. They're just on the edge of puberty (D.J.'s voice cracks early on), which means they're stuck in between immaturity and worldliness. They're young enough to be scared by a creaky house, but crafty enough to find out how to engage it. They're old enough to be impressed by a female arrival, Jenny, but young enough to clumsily attempt impressing her.
Jenny makes her entrances courtesy of a fantastic exchange between the enterprising girl and the boys' teenage babysitter, Elizabeth. Here, the sharp dialogue between these two wily characters is matched only by the subtle facial expressions. Liz is groggy at first, but she perks up in a hurry. Jenny goes heavy on the charm, but is quick with a comeback when she isn't making progress. The activity in the eyebrows and lips are your first clue that you aren't dealing with a garden-variety animated confrontation. Unlike Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Polar Express, director Gil Keenan isn't working with soulless mannequins. Monster House's characters are infused with life and personality that's familiar and sneaky, rather than thespian and over-expressive. Check out the way Liz's boyfriend, Bones, bobs his head, or pretty much any of Chowder's mannerisms. You may hate the way he screams when you look at the stills, but you have to appreciate the way he huffs while feinting with a basketball. This film works much better in action than it does in stills. (These are motion pictures, after all.) For all of the disgust over the motion-capture process Monster House employs, this notable achievement was missed.
We also shouldn't rag on Monster House for having a script with dialogue that is more than functional. Its wit is well-supported by the animated performances, thanks mainly to those mannerisms. And don't complain about the preteen protagonists. This is no more a "kiddie" film than Iron Giant, with its crafty children. Like The Incredibles, it even has legit pop culture savvy (Video Game Guy, Reginald, speaks in video game idioms the way Edna Mode speaks of superhero fashion.) For Brad Bird-friendly potty humour, note the "undrinkable bottle" and the puppy that's slurped up by the monster house at an inopportune time.
I can understand the disappointment some animation fans feel over this year's choices. Now is not the time to dwell on disappointment, however. Animation appreciation shouldn't be binary. Rather than championing a Chosen One that does everything right, we should recognize the good films we got in a year where animation, for the first time in a long time, was seen as Hollywood's chance to win the hearts (and dollars) of ticket buyers. In 2007 it will be sequels and presold concepts (rather than the art form of animation) that gets Hollywood's "saviour" stamp. Now you can be disappointed.