Anton Capital Entertainment/nWave Pictures/Studio Canal (2013), Shout! Factory (September 30, 2014 – Wal-Mart exclusive), 1 BD 3D/2D + 1 DVD, 87 mins, 16:9 ratio, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Not Rated, Retail: $24.97


A young abandoned cat finds shelter in a house which the neighborhood considers to be bad news; but the house turns out to be filled with wonder. Some danger does await, in the form of the owner’s surly pets and wicked nephew, leading the cat on a path of adventure and newfound friendship.


The Sweatbox Review:

The trickle of modern European animated films into the North American home video market continues, thanks to Shout! Factory. They last brought such a film to the New World in 2013, with their release of the delightfully quirky A Monster In Paris, but a pair of releases this fall suggests that more may be on the way in the future. This is great news for those of us tired of formulaic Hollywood fare. The release in question here is Thunder And The House Of Magic (the on-screen title is just House Of Magic), a Franco-Belgian-American production that premiered in Belgium on Christmas Day of 2013. While it doesn’t exactly defy Hollywood-style animated film conventions, it is a strong film filled with delights for all ages.


The feature film is based on a short film made by the producers for a 4-D theme park ride a number of years ago, but here the story has been greatly expanded. A young cat is abandoned by its owners, who are moving away, in the city of Boston, USA. After a rough introduction to the streets, the cat makes its way to a house that dogs dare not approach. Word on the street is that the house is haunted, or at least seriously creepy. The cat has little choice, though, and he bravely proceeds to enter the spooky-looking Victorian house.


Inside, the cat encounters two creatures who live there— a grumpy rabbit and his hench-mouse. After a chase, they think that they’ve chased the cat away, but kitty is undeterred. The cat returns, and meets the owner of the house, a friendly old magician named Lawrence. Lawrence has many little friends living there with him. Aside from his rabbit, Jack, and mouse, Maggie, there is a large assortment of automatons— toys that seemingly come to life. It’s not quite clear in the film, but Lawrence may have some real magic that allows his toys to take on a bit of life.


Much to the consternation of Jack and Maggie, who fear that the cat may prove a little too endearing to their beloved owner, Lawrence does indeed take an immediate liking to the little tabby. Christening the cat Thunder, Lawrence makes it official that the cat is now to be considered part of the family. Thunder makes Jack and Maggie’s hatred him worse when he insists on coming with Lawrence to do a magic show and the hospital, and the pair’s loathing grows when Thunder becomes a well-received part of the act. Jack and Maggie try to attack Thunder on the way home, leading to Lawrence crashing his bike and ending up in the hospital.


By now, we’ve also already met Lawrence’s nephew Daniel. His initial appearance in Lawrence’s home makes us take a dislike to him, but once Lawrence is hospitalized, Daniel really reveals his true nature and intentions. Daniel, a realtor, knows that Lawrence’s home— even in a declining economy— could potentially sell for big bucks, and he is determined to sell it under his uncle’s nose. He coerces Lawrence into signing over power of attorney, and so begins the career of our film’s villain.


Using elder abuse as a theme in an animated film is not entirely new, but here it is at the forefront. Daniel schemes his way into defrauding his uncle and makes every attempt to sell the home. This naturally brings him into conflict with the other citizens of the house, whom he is either unaware of, or has disregarded. His biggest enemy, though, becomes Thunder, not least of which is because Daniel has a severe allergy to cats. Even Jack and Maggie come to recognize Thunder’s usefulness in this regard, though they do not exactly befriend Thunder just yet. Thunder must fight off the misdeeds of Jack and Maggie while leading the charge against Daniel and his potential buyers. The result is a combination of Home Alone and Night At The Museum, but cuter. Daniel slowly descends into madness as he faces forces he cannot comprehend, and the stakes get higher and higher, leading to a mad charge to the finish with a recuperating Lawrence racing home from the hospital to save his lovely old home.


As foreign features go, then, this one is not quite as fresh as one might hope. However, that does not take away from its status as a lovely family film. The movie’s energy, positive messages, and unique set-up propel it past its slightly derivative plot. The animation may fall just short of the best that the US studios are putting out (fewer points of animation in faces, less convincing effects work, and less thorough blending of objects into backgrounds), but overall the animation is very lively. This is solid family entertainment that had me rooting for the little kitty at the end.


Is This Thing Loaded?

There are three short featurettes, all in French with English subtitles. Together, they offer a brief but pleasing look at the making of the film. Origins (4:07) sees the producers discussing the evolution of the film from theme park ride to feature film. (Unfortunately, we see nothing of that original film.)


Character Animation (4:40) breaks the film down into phases of production; it’s something we’ve seen time and again, but it’s still fun to see early and incomplete animation. Finally, The Making Of The Soundtrack (3:44) discusses the composer (Ramin Djawadi, who also scored Iron Man and Pacific Rim, as well as many TV shows) and the role of music in the film. The disc also includes the film’s Teaser (1:26) and Trailer (2:05).


Unlike Disney’s modern practice of shutting out DVD users, Shout! has actually provided all the bonus material on the DVD as well! Nicely done, Shout!


Case Study:

The packaging suggests possibly more than two discs, but the 3D and 2D Blu-ray presentations are actually on a single disc (see the next section for more info). The second disc is the DVD version, and the digital copy must be downloaded from a website. An insert inside the case explains how the digital copy may be obtained. The cover slip reproduces the cover, with the addition of three more images on the back; the slip is not embossed. Even my review copy has a sticker on it labelling this as a Wal-Mart exclusive, and a second sticker highlights that a 3D version is included, though the actual disc count remains (unintentionally) misleading.


Ink And Paint:

Both the hi-def 2D and 3D versions come on a single disc. On my PS3, the disc defaulted to the 3D presentation, and I found no way to switch it to 2D. In fact, when I tried later to play it on my non-3D TV from the same PS3, the disc refused to play; such is the hazard of placing both versions on one disc. Assumedly, those who don’t have a 3D set-up will only have access to the 2D version. Both versions have top quality video, though, presumably showing off the animation to its best advantage. Models may not be quite as detailed as in a major American film, but every bit of what is there shows on the screen. For a film supposedly about a haunted house, the colors are vivid and rich, and the picture is usually bright and full of life.


Now, for those with 3D capability, you are in for a treat! I have gown tired of modern filmmakers saying that they don’t want to make their 3D films “too gimmicky.” Well, I have news for them. 3D is a gimmick. To me, if you’re not throwing things into the audience’s face, there’s almost no point to making a film in 3D. For me, it’s not enough for the picture to have depth; well-conceived and shot films have that anyway. I also don’t care about things simply floating “in front” of the screen. If we’re doing 3D, I want it in my face! Otherwise, I tend to forget I’m even watching 3D. The makers of Thunder apparently feel the same way, because this is one of the most fun 3D films I’ve experienced outside a theme park. Right from the film’s opening, there are birds and butterflies flying around all over the place, and the viewer gets hit by a bus (even as it passes over poor Thunder). Going forward, no opportunity is wasted. Angles emphasize depth, and gags are made even better by coming toward the camera and emphasizing the 3D. It’s not annoying in the least; it is just very well done. This is one instance where the 3D may actually make the film even more enjoyable.


Scratch Tracks:

In a film with this many chases, tricks, and surprises, the audio has a chance to shine, and indeed it does. This would be a fun film for which to design the sound, and it’s certainly fun to listen to such an active sound mix. This is a movie with lots of energy, and the breadth of the full sound experience in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 just makes the whole enterprise that much more enjoyable.


The original French soundtrack is also provided, also in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; plus, 2.0 versions are also available in both languages. Subtitles can be selected in English and French. The DVD carries Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 options, as well as subtitles, in both languages as well.

Final Cut:

While this may not be an essential purchase, it is one you wouldn’t regret. Thunder And The House Of Magic has a few familiar elements, but what doesn’t these days. What’s important is the execution, and here the news is very positive. I still found it fresher than a few sequels I could mention, and the terrifically fun 3D is the icing on the cake. I would recommend that anyone who loves animated films give this a look, but especially so if you have a good 3D set-up.

Note that this film is currently available only as a Wal-Mart exclusive in the USA. It will assumedly be more widely available at a later date.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?