Thunder and the House of Magic is one half of a very good movie. This movie was expanded from a short fixated on the “House of Magic” part of the title, and it shows. Everything to do with the original short shows signs of real creative spark, but its rudimentary plot is unlikely to engage too many outside of younger viewers that likely haven’t yet seen too many lighthearted talking animal flicks.
What story there is involves a stray cat soon named Thunder, who is unceremoniously dumped from a moving truck in a somewhat nondescript town (which is later labeled somewhere in Massachusetts). He blunders his way to an aged and rather cluttered mansion inhabited by Lawrence, a kind and elderly magician. He’s mostly retired but still makes time to entertain sickly children at the local hospital, and hoards all manner of artifacts from his long career. What’s more, thanks to a lingering enchantment on his old home, he’s accompanied by a slew of toys and objects that come alive to keep him company. Thunder is promptly noticed, named and taken in, but despite his unceasingly kind personality he’s spurned by Maggie the mouse and Jack the rabbit, as Maggie is understandably leery of the young feline while Jack is harsh and territorial.
Thunder’s predictable quest for acceptance is enabled by the movie’s other conflict, where Lawrence’s slimy nephew Daniel schemes to get his uncle to retire to a nursing home and allow him to sell the magnificent property for a hefty sum. When an underhanded scheme to get Thunder on the magician’s bad side backfires and lands the poor old man in the hospital, the loathsome little man manipulates his scatterbrained relative into signing over power of attorney over his affairs. With the old man stuck in the hospital, there’s nothing to stop the sale of his estate except for Thunder, who rallies the denizens of the house to annoy, spook, and intimidate anyone who shows an interest in the place, much to the chagrin of our confused villain.
Hopefully everyone still remembers Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where the climatic battle at the Beast’s castle involved all manner of sentient household objects beat the stuffing out of an attacking mob. The recurring antics here are less extreme but just as whimsical, as the magician seems to own just about anything and everything you’d expect to see at a carnival or circus and more. We’re not quite at Home Alone levels of trap making and manipulation but the clever exploitation of the mansion’s many objects and some well-timed antics from the animals are quite fun and a few of the tricks are genuine visual delights, such as when an oversized dragonesque firework is set off at the expense of two terrified movers.
It’s a shame there’s a lack of memorable characters to go along with the film’s visual delights. Thunder is relentlessly nice no matter what happens, while Maggie and Jack spend much of the film arbitrarily treating Thunder with suspicion and then hostility and then grudging tolerance until they finally arrive at acceptance after matters are nearly all resolved. There’s little more to them than their attitudes for much of the film, while the film could stand to send a stronger message against their misbehavior. There’s little in the movie to suggest that they’d have come around if Thunder hadn’t proven his usefulness many times over. Lawrence is a likable character but sidelined for much of the film, while Daniel is a selfish caricature rather than anything approximating a real person. In a rather bizarre early moment, he visits Lawrence at the mansion and personally gets caught in one of his magic contraptions, yet he’s more vexed than astonished as if this is normal. However, afterward he doesn’t show any awareness of magic and he certainly doesn’t take Lawrence or his profession seriously. At the climax he’s so vexed by his failures that he irrationally opts to try demolishing the house, failing to even consistently cling to his greedy motivations. A throwaway line from Lawrence questions how he went from being a nice boy to nasty little man, and then the subject is not even referenced again. No matter, the film implicitly says, he’s a buffoon to dislike and laugh at.
Shout! Factory has delivered a very respectable release for this movie , packing in both a 3D Blu-ray and Blu-ray disc along with a DVD disc and digital copy. In addition to a serviceable English dub, the movie’s native French audio track is also included, and I was pleased to find the presence of a trio of making-of featurettes that raise this above a slew of bare bones releases. In these the directors discuss the development of the film from its early concepts and the score, and those interested in the process of animation will get much out a lengthy clip that walks viewers through the process of taking the movie from simple animatics to full-fledged 3D CG animation.
All in all I do not begrudge the simplicity of Thunder and the House of Magic, I just wish that given its nature, a way had been found to emphasize the wonders of the house even more and to make the magic the clearly dominant factor driving all the fun. As it is, the story feels like something that interrupts the film’s moments of inspiration, that’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s just enough whimsical charm to make it appealing for a younger audience and bring a few smiles to the young at heart. I hope this crew embraces that all the more tightly in their next project.
Thunder and the House of Magic is available now via digital download and on Blu-ray 3-D and DVD as a Walmart exclusive release.