One of the spooky archetypes of childhood imagination — the dark, mysterious house across the street — is literally brought to life in Monster House, a marvelously creepy animated feature directed by Gil Kenan.
At first the house, which sits on a perfectly ordinary suburban block, seems like nothing more than the dilapidated home of Mr. Nebbercracker, a cranky old man with bad teeth, a gruesome comb-over and Steve Buscemi's voice. It quickly becomes clear — to a plucky boy-detective type named DJ and his two young sidekicks, and then to everybody else — that the ramshackle Victorian is possessed by a malevolent, demonic force. It seizes toys; it eats people. And since this is a movie aimed at an audience for whom the grosser bodily functions are a perpetual source of laughs, it vomits them up again. The house roars, belches, spits fire and in the end turns out to be Kathleen Turner.
If I say that Monster House is the best child-friendly movie of the summer so far, it may sound like extravagant praise — or maybe like faint praise. In any case, modesty can be numbered among the picture's virtues, along with ingenuity. It runs a trim 86 minutes — during which I observed not a single fidget from my seven-year-old companions — and does not waste time on the Valuable Lessons routinely pasted onto family movies like nutrition labels on boxes of sugary cereal, to assure anxious parents that the junk has some value. Monster House is unpretentious, smartly written (by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler) and a lot of fun.
It also represents, to the technology nerds in the audience, an interesting refinement of animation techniques. Like Robert Zemeckis's Polar Express, Monster House (for which Zemeckis served as an executive producer) uses the digitally captured movements of real actors rather than computer-generated algorithms as the basis for its animated images. The people in the movie look a little like molded-plastic figurines (the ones in Polar Express looked more like porcelain dolls), but their gestures are uncannily fluid and unpredictable, making you appreciate the quality of the acting more than you generally do in animated films. The postures and gestures of DJ (Mitchell Musso) and his pals — a pudgy fellow named Chowder (Sam Lerner) and a preppy redhead named Jenny (Spencer Locke) — have an authentically loose and antic look. They seem like real kids, rather than like super-cute, big-headed cartoon moppets.
MONSTER HOUSEDirected by Gil KenanWITH THE VOICES OF: Steve Buscemi (Nebbercracker), Nick Cannon (Lister), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Zee), Jon Heder (Skull/The Pizza Chef), Kevin James (Landers), Jason Lee (Bones), Sam Lerner (Chowder), Spencer Locke (Jenny), Mitchel Musso (DJ), Catherine O’Hara (Mom)Running time: 86 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
And for the most part they talk and behave like real kids, too, or at least like characters drawn from the rich tradition of plucky, intellectually curious kiddie-lit heroes. DJ is descended from Encyclopedia Brown (perhaps by way of Jimmy Neutron, but never mind), and Jenny bears some temperamental resemblance to Harriet the Spy. I'm sure Chowder will remind you of someone in your fifth-grade class, wherever or whenever that was. The adults in the picture — DJ's dithering parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), who take off for a dental convention the day before Halloween, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the grumpy sitter who takes their place, and the bumbling town policemen (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) — are predictably useless. The children, left to their own devices, must conquer the evil that, all but unnoticed, flourishes in their midst.