'Monster House' Lays Foundation for Kid Courage

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Kids don't get enough credit for knowing a thing or two about life, and the young heroes in "Monster House" find they have to save the neighborhood on their own when the adults around them can't see the sinister stuff going on right underneath their noses.

In this twist on a the classic haunted house tale, 12-year-old DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) lives across the street from a rickety old house that belongs to the ancient and angry Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who's notorious around the neighborhood for confiscating any toy that lands on his lawn. When he takes a sudden leave of absence, the house starts acting up by eating people, and it's up to DJ and his pals Chowder (Sam Lerner) and Jenny (Spencer Locke) to stop it.

"I come from a place of really appreciating the places where you live as more than just rooms and doors," says first-time director Gil Kenan. "I've always held a special meaning to places where I've lived and they hold an importance in my life. So I can appreciate a house as a character."

Kenan, who was hired on the strength of his award-winning senior year film at UCLA, remembers encountering his own Nebbercracker as a child.

"There was an apartment on the ground floor, right next to the pool, where this old man lived," recalls the director. "He was the superintendent of the building -– Old Man Ben. And he used to terrorize us. He had this cane, and whenever we played ... he would take the cane and smash it up against the ceiling. It would create this really haunting, resonating sound. And whenever we left any toys around the pool ... they would disappear into this vast emptiness of his checkered interior. He used to wear Mr. Furley pants, like kind of plaid, checked pants, really hideous and scary."

The animated film uses motion-capture, aka "mo-cap," technology, in which the actors would wear body suits with sensors or "dots" covering their body and face that would translate their performances to the screen. Despite the odd attire, this method allows actors to interact, versus having a single actor isolated in a recording booth method used for other animated films. This also allows for an almost exact transfer of an actor's personality onto film.

"Yes, I definitely see everything that we did. I can see my mannerisms," acknowledges Locke, whose character Jenny has an entrepreneurial spirit. "When Jenny gives a nasty look to Chowder -- my sister said, 'Oh, you've given me that look a hundred times. That's so you, Spencer.' So I think you can see all of us in our characters in different ways."

The film's pals determine that in order to fight the house, they'll actually have to infiltrate the mysterious interior, where everything from a tricycle to a dog has been yanked inside. They plan a couple scenarios for their covert ops mission, which also involves lots of arguing. Like their on-screen alter egos, Musso, Lerner and Locke became close friends from their shared experiences on the film, so creating good-hearted bickering came naturally. Kenan, a "kid at heart" who once took the actors to In 'N' Out Burger in their mo-cap suits, also encouraged their input.

"He'd let us use all our own expressions and emotions," says Musso. "He let Sam, me and Spencer ad-lib lines all the time. We'd be like, 'Hey, this sounds like a good idea,' and he'd be like, 'Yeah, that'd be funny. Let's work that in.' Or he'd tell us, 'That's horrible. What are you talking about? That's the dumbest idea.' No, he wouldn't say it like that."

In the end, Kenan believes that "Monster House" will provide the scary thrills that kids really crave.

"Kids are so up to the challenge and are thirsting for more than just this really passive, toothless entertainment fluff," he asserts. "They want something that's going to give them the full experience and the challenge. It's like going to an amusement park: you don't go there to sit on the merry-go-round. That's lame. ... There's something that doesn't speak down to them. It looks them right in the eyes and tells them a real story."

Locke, who's observed children at several test screenings, has to agree that most kids these days can handle a few scares.

"I was sitting in front of a 5-year-old girl thinking she'd be really scared," recalls the actress. "Afterwards, I asked her, 'What did you think? Did you like it? Were you scared?' And she said, 'No, no. I wasn't scared. I loved it.'"

"Monster House" terrorizes neighborhoods nationwide beginning Friday, July 21.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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