I watched Monster House and The Artist on two consecutive evenings, and I have to admit up front that this is one of the harder “double review” pairings I’ve attempted, but I’ll try. First, brief synopses:
Monster House follows the adventures of three neighborhood children who discover that the house across the street is inhabited by a malevolent spirit that loves capturing (and eating?) wayward toys and people. Plus, it’s sneaky in that it only makes itself visible to children and adults too close to escape its grasp. Mwa ha ha. The Artist is the much ballyhooed silent film that garnered nearly a dozen Oscar nominations in 2011. It tells the story of a silent film actor who frets over the advent of talkies, and finds his life on a downward spiral. A few thoughts:
- Each of these films springs from a genre already formed, and tries to make it fresh. Monster House draws on a long history of menacing house stories, from The Haunting of Hill House to The Amityville Horror to The Beyond. In each of these, the domestic bliss of the home space is disrupted by a malevolent force only the protagonist can see. Monster House actually relates most closely, for me, to Home Alone, as it depends a lot on the adventurous spirit of children to move the narrative forward. The Artist reconstructs with nostalgia the silent film era, and builds its story around the shift from silent to sound film. Its charismatic lead actor reminds me a lot of Gene Kelly, and the talkie-plot makes this a kind of bizarro Singing in the Rain, mirroring the plot of that other film in many ways.
- Both films also feature many actors in small parts whom you’ll be excited to see. The Artist boasts James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, and John Goodman in key roles. Monster House features voices of Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Jason Lee, Maggie Gyllenhall, and Steve Buscemi. All are delightful in both, but given that we can’t hear Malcolm McDowell’s distinctive cadence, Monster House wins.
- Most importantly, neither film really stands out for me as all that good. For adventure movies, the children can watch The Goonies or Chicken Little or Jimmy Neutron with a much higher payoff, and once you get past the gimmick of The Artist being a silent film, the story is rather predictable and one-dimensional. I can’t imagine myself being interested or driven to watch either film again.
While there’s not a lot of pressure, in my mind, to like Monster House, I find myself feeling defensive about the fact that I didn’t really like The Artist very much. While the film does a good job evoking the silent film era with nostalgia and drama, it doesn’t do much in the way of advancing the genre. Instead of using the last 80 years of filmmaking experience to craft a silent film that challenges viewers to follow the narrative with the kind of story and meta-story common to today’s films, it tells a story no more complicated or compelling than those being made in films of the mid 20’s already. For me, this is nostalgia without purpose, and ultimately a failed experiment.
If the other contenders for the Oscar this year are good films without being anything special, The Artist is a special film without being anything all that good.