3 stars (out of four)
"Monster House" is more fun and a bit stranger than it looks from the trailer, and from the way its handlers make it sound. The film resembles "a fun house in an amusement park," according to co-executive producer Robert Zemeckis, deploying an old cliche made monetarily new by Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel. The studio materials describe "Monster House" as a "comedy thrill-ride." Is that different from a thriller comedy-ride?
The surprise here isn't in director Gil Kenan's canny attack on his target audience (not younger than 8 or 9, I'd say). Nor is it in the motion-capture animation technique. The not-quite-human, not-quite-drawn and entirely soulless computer-generated imagery of "The Polar Express," which Zemeckis directed, has been stylized further into something resembling an actual pictorial style rather than a freak of digital nature.
"Monster House" was conceived as a live-action film, and in some good ways and less-good ways, it feels like one. Yet it has real virtues, starting with solid and uncluttered plotting and a sense of direction. The tale works from a time-honored premise: What's up with the scary house across the street?
Answering that question, the screenplay goes blessedly easy on the contemporary animation genre's usual surfeit of nattering pop culture references. While the brash tone and character types of "Monster House" may be familiar--I've about had it with sociopathically bitchy babysitters--Kenan and screenwriters Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler wrap their central cusp-of-adolescence ghostbusting trio in trappings reminiscent of a 1960s Hammer horror film.
Across the way from the home of 12-year-old DJ (voice and, prior to the motion-capture animation process, movement by Mitchel Musso) glowers the menacing domicile of old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). The widower will brook no trespassers on his lawn. His house is even worse-tempered. Pity the poor three-wheeler or the odd pooch venturing too near the front door.
The audience and DJ are in on the secret before anyone else: That place is haunted. Its front lawn acts like green quicksand, pulling stray balls and such underground. The second-story windows glow like eyes; the front door has a froglike zapper tongue in the form of a carpet. With his parents away, DJ is in the disdainful care of a babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) more interested in her boyfriend (Jason Lee) than in DJ's otherworldly concerns. "This is Bones," babysitter Zee says, introducing her squeeze. "He's in a band."
For a while "Monster House" plays like an acne-ridden "Rear Window." DJ, Chowder (Sam Lerner) and their newfound mate Jenny (Spencer Locke) keep an eye on the evil fixer-upper via telescope. Once the intrepid trio braves the home's interior, the script's funhouse/thrill ride mechanics threaten to overwhelm the story. And then for a while they do.
The climax involves our heroes deploying a huge construction crane in order to vanquish their adversary. Without referencing it too obviously, the scene hearkens back to the 1967 Hammer science-fiction item "Quatermass and the Pit." (A good film, if you haven't seen it; the U.S. title was "Five Million Years to Earth.") Set around Halloween, "Monster House" manages to cull bits and pieces from Hammer, Hitchcock and the old-dark-house genre of 19th Century literature and early 20th Century stage and film. These bits and pieces manage to move quickly, without indulging in punch lines dependent on Britney Spears or Scientology. Older kids with a taste for fright will likely be interested in how the floorboards turn into big brown teeth and then back into floorboards. Viewers of all ages who survived the 2003 film version of the Disney ride known as "The Haunted Mansion" will appreciate the improvement "Monster House" represents in the realm of old dark houses with great big secrets.
Directed by Gil Kenan; screenplay by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler; cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet; edited by Adam P. Scott and Fabienne Rawley; production design by Ed Verreaux; music by Douglas Pipes; produced by Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: PG (for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor and brief language).
DJ - Mitchel Musso
Chowder - Sam Lerner
Jenny - Spencer Locke
Nebbercracker - Steve Buscemi
Mom - Catherine O'Hara
Dad - Fred Willard
Zee - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Movie review: 'Monster House'
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.