Animation: “Thunder and the House of Magic” – by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

I would like to thank my sister, Sherrill Patten, for getting this On Demand on her TV so I could see it.

Actually, I could pretty much just repeat my comments about “The Nut Job” on Flayrah last February. “Thunder and the House of Magic” is an 85–minute CGI Belgian animated feature from nWave Pictures that was released as “The House of Magic” in French, in Belgium, France, and the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, on December 25, 2013 for the Christmas market. The Boston setting and the title and signage in English (there is even a U.S. 5¢ coin) suggest that it was always intended for the American market. Its original American trailer as “The House of Magic” with an announced release date of July 25 seems to confirm this. Something fell through, and it was finally picked up for North America as “Thunder and the House of Magic” by The Shout! Factory, primarily a DVD releaser. The Shout! Factory gave it an extremely limited American theatrical release in ten cities on September 5 (for one week?) to qualify it for the Oscars, Annies, Golden Globes, and other 2014 awards nominations, then sold it to On Demand TV networks for the rest of September (Sherry & I saw it on Time Warner Cable for $6.99), and has announced it as a Shout! Factory DVD on September 30 for $22.47.

Thunder_and_the_House_of_MagicThe movie has an official website, thanks to The Shout! Factory, that cites a couple of film festival awards and positive quotes from several reviews. Nevertheless, all of the reviews of it that I have seen have been strongly negative. “In recent years,’ says Charles Solomon on Jerry Beck’s Animation Scoop site, ‘The Triplets of Belleville, ‘The Secret of Kells, ‘Ernest and Celestine and other European features have proven it’s possible to make entertaining, artistic films on a modest budget. Sadly, the Belgian feature ‘Thunder and the House of Magic’ never even aspires to that level of imagination. It’s just another attempt to produce a big studio-style CG movie on the cheap, in the dubious tradition of ‘The Nut Job’ and ‘Khumba’. […] The pacing of the film is erratic at best, and viewers can keep themselves amused during the frequent lulls by picking out which bits and bobs the filmmakers have lifted from other, better features including ‘Up’, ‘The Incredibles’, ‘Ratatouille’, ‘Oliver & Company’ and ‘The Great Mouse Detective’.” “‘Thunder and the House of Magic’ epitomizes the sort of animated film that’s supposed to be fun for the whole family but that actually pleases no one. Co-directors Ben Stassen and Jérémie Degruson have assembled so many clichés and bits borrowed from other films that ‘Thunder’ feels like a rerun on its first viewing,” says Charles Solomon (again!) in the “Los Angeles Times”. “This pseudo-Disney animation from Belgium comes with generic US settings and American voices […] As a feature film, it is soulless, like something that has been generated by a computer programme,” says Peter Bradshaw of “The Guardian”.

So “Thunder and the House of Magic” isn’t made for the adult cinematic connoisseur. It doesn’t pretend to be. It is frankly a mass-market children’s animated feature, and for that market, it succeeds brilliantly; PLUS it has enough smarts that parents seeing it with their kids will not be bored. And furry fans should love it! Does it have some scenes that can be compared to scenes in other animated features? With a little imagination, what films don’t? Thunder here and Oliver in ‘Oliver & Company’: two lively kittens = Separated At Birth. The Doberman here and the one in “Up” = Separated At Birth.

A nameless kitten is abandoned by a family moving to a new home, in a residential neighborhood of what is later identified as Boston. He wanders, looking for a new home, until he comes to a creepy Victorian mansion owned by Lawrence, an elderly retired stage magician who now spends his time performing free magic shows to entertain children. (Lawrence later says that the house “has been in the family for generations” and that he doesn’t want to change a thing, justifying its being out-of-step with the rest of the neighborhood.) He is also either a real magician or an accomplished inventor, since he is surrounded by as many living toys as in “Toy Story’ (notably Edison the light bulb and Clara the ballerina doll). Lawrence’s main “family members” are Jack, his faithful magician’s white rabbit, and Maggie, a feisty white mouse.

1409646411_thunder_and_the_house_of_magic-ooThe old magician welcomes the kitten into his family, and names him Thunder during a thunderstorm. However, the elderly Jack and Maggie are paranoid that Thunder is plotting to replace them as Lawrence’s favorite family member, and they try to drive him away. Simultaneously, Lawrence’s smarmy nephew Daniel, a real-estate agent is trying to get the old Victorian house to sell it for a fortune. (The modern houses in the neighborhood are one-story; the Victorian mansion is three stories with an attic and basement.) Jack’s and Maggie’s attack on Thunder while all three are on Lawrence’s bicycle causes a crash that sends the old magician seriously injured to Boston General Hospital. Daniel takes the opportunity to try to pack Uncle Lawrence off to a retirement home, and sell his house out from under him. Naturally the animals and toys fight to sabotage him until the magician can return home.

Additional conflict and mild suspense are generated by Jack’s and Maggie’s blaming Lawrence’s almost-fatal accident on Thunder instead of admitting that they set it off; on Daniel’s clever reactions to their first attacks; and on grumpy Nurse Baxter’s refusal to let Lawrence out of the hospital. Nice comebacks are Daniel’s allergy to Thunder’s fur and the animals’ adopting it into their strategy, and the toys’ initiative in attacking Daniel’s prospective buyers without wait for either Thunder or Jack to tell them what to do. Additional talking animals are Kiki the Chihuahua, and Carlo & Carla the doves.

Look closely at the lip movements. Does this movie just have really good voice dubbing, or were the lip movements designed from the beginning for an English voice track? Speaking of the voices, there are no Celebrity Voices here, and I do not recognize any of the listed voice actors as well-known professionals like Charlie Adler, Tress MacNeille, Dan Castellaneta, or Nancy Cartwright. Yet I defy anyone to pick a better voice cast for this movie – including Jack’s inexplicable British accent. The computer graphics quality is top-notch, too. (You can tell in 2D which scenes are meant to be in 3D).

I appreciated the end credits to “Le Tax Shelter du Gouvernement Fédéral de Belgique”, and a corresponding American financial backer. It appears to be money well spent.

A few adv’ts identify nWave Pictures as the Brussels-based producer of the CGI features “A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures” (2010) and “A Turtle’s Tale 2: Sammy’s Escape from Paradise” (2012), which I have seen and enjoyed. Check out their website.thunder

– Fred Patten