It’s Halloween Eve in suburbia and while most of the neighborhood kids are gearing up for a candy extravaganza two young‘uns--DJ (voiced by Mitchell Musso) and Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner)--are fretting and dreading. They’re convinced that the decrepit house across the street is in fact a monster house inhabited by an old hermit named Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) that will lure kids in on Halloween night. But just as DJ’s parents who naturally don’t believe him to begin with leave for a vacation DJ inadvertently sends Nebbercracker to his death--or so he fears. Now DJ believes Nebbercracker’s monster house will seek revenge on him specifically and to make matters worse his negligent babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) won’t hear of his yapping. After DJ and Chowder are forced to take action they along with a girl peddling candy (voiced by Spencer Locke) discover how the monster came to be and just how unforgiving she is. When it comes to animation acting the main goal is to make audiences forget that the actors are giving their performances in a studio possibly dressed in their PJs and sans makeup. That goal’s usually achieved but Monster House takes a gamble in supposing that child actors comprising the lead characters will be able to wrap their still-expanding brains around the concept. Somehow Lerner and Musso grasp this despite sounding like they haven’t even been in this world very long! The two are surrounded by a fail-proof supporting cast: it takes a while to recognize Buscemi’s voice as Nebbercracker but once it hits it fits and Gyllenhaal as the babysitter is great if unpredictable casting. Quasi-cameos from Jason Lee as Gyllenhaal’s punk boyfriend Jon Heder as a video-game god and Kevin James and Nick Cannon as slow-moving and -thinking cops garner the most laughs. Not only does it help a film’s box office performance to have Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis onboard as executive producers it helps a film’s director--in this case a rookie director named Gil Kenan. (Zemeckis directed ‘04’s somewhat similar-looking The Polar Express.) While the animation doesn’t quite stand up to say Pixar’s earth-shattering visuals Kenan makes up for it with a fun-filled story (from scripters Dan Harmon Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler) and an overall lively involved effort--and it’s not like the movie doesn’t still look gorgeous. Besides sometimes it’s refreshing to not be so entranced by the CGI that you lose sight of the actual movie at hand. Kenan’s film is one of the scarier animated movies in a while but that still doesn’t exclude many age groups. What the first-time director thrives on is stopping just shy of true horror moments at which point he reverts to feel-good mode without ever being sappy.
P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents however believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up especially her father. Then a cheeky wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted yet jealousy-prone fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer and with a few happy thoughts some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch…the real place.) Once there Wendy encounters mermaids Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as "mother") and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because on the one hand she likes hangin' with hottie Peter but on the other she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash ticking crocodiles are fed and fairies are saved as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing with angelic faces peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy a fact much hyped by the filmmakers and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl earned her role after a long and involved casting process it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly infusing the character with a natural cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening comical lonely charming needy reprehensible Captain Hook draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious non-speaking Tinkerbell portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way he's right and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it giving audiences a very lush Neverland with waterfalls fluffy pink clouds crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version lives really are at stake and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent with scary faces and murderous intentions a far cry from the beautiful if somewhat mean-spirited creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near for example tick-tocking away the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy catchy songs but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck it's a great story. But it's just been done.
A family headed for a weekend in the backwoods is stranded when a wounded deer jumps in front of their car and sends them into a ditch. A posse of threatening rednecks appears and the ringleader Otis (John Speredakos) shoots the wounded deer point blank as the child in the car looks on. This is how the filmmakers establish Otis as the bad guy--and this will also create dramatic tension later between Otis and the Wendigo monster so you never quite know which one's actually terrorizing the family throughout the film. Once it's painfully clear who the bad guy is the trouble begins in earnest. When dad George mom Kim and son Miles finally arrive at the country house where they're staying they realize that someone's been shootin' up walls and windows. By now everyone in the theater knows it must be Otis. He certainly reappears soon enough--and now the big mean deer killer "knows where we live!" You bet he does Miles and he's watching your parents have sex right now. But that just makes him a pervert--not a psycho killer. Or does it? You'll spend the rest of this nightmare movie waiting to find out the answer to this and other compelling questions. Like what the hell is a Wendigo anyway?
When little Miles' head first appears in the back seat of the car you can't help but gasp. It's Dewey--oops Erik Per Sullivan--with hair and playing about three years younger than he looks like he really is. Yes Malcolm in the Middle fans your dear hamster-toting pal has finally hit the big screen. The filmmakers probably told him that he'd be the next Haley Joel Osment: "Wendigo is the next Sixth Sense. You just have to be in it!" Poor kid. It's not and he didn't. Still he does well enough with material that calls for him to do little other than look vacant and cry. Patricia Clarkson as Kim and Jake Weber as George are vacuous and their performances utterly forgettable. Of course the utter crappiness of the script doesn't help and since they have most of the lines they come off the worst.
There's a certain '80s charm to the wintry look of this movie which is probably more to director of photography Terry Stacey's (Spring Forward Trick) credit than to director Larry Fessenden's. Credit Fessenden who also wrote and edited and designed the Wendigo creature with well the Wendigo mostly. Because the sheer stupidity of this completely non-frightening creature pretty much nails exactly why this movie is as awful as it is. The Wendigo looks kind of like a deer standing on its hind legs with um hands. Yeah that's right. Hands. The creature might be the stuff of Miles' nightmares--there's certainly that possibility--but surely it should be at least a little scary. It's a joke as it's incarnated here. This is also the case with any number of scenes that are supposed to be scary but just aren't: at Otis' place the hangin' deer meet is supposed to spook ya; it doesn't. Dad and Miles chop wood with an axe? Come on. Chopping wood is only a frightening event if your daddy slices his leg open with a chain saw. When George falls off the back of a sled leaving Miles to torpedo down the hillside and later flee on foot as a smoke-thing (Wendigo spirit perhaps?) roils after him you're not frightened. You just want to cry "Run Dewey run!" The biggest joke is the ghostly Native American guy who appears at key moments (and once in a Quickie Mart) never speaks but manages to deliver voiceovers like "Wendigo is a mighty powerful spirit…part wind part tree part man part beast shape shifting." He also gives Dewey--oops Miles--the little carved statue that will play a key role in the plot's twist.