A small and limited group of viewers -- I'm thinking boys between the ages of 8 and 12 -- will really get a kick out of "Monster House," an energetic animated effort that makes little effort to branch out very far. It's probably too scary for younger viewers and neither clever nor scary enough for older audiences.
The plot of "Monster House" isn't deceptively simple. It's just simple. DJ (Mitchel Musso) is our lead, a boy on the cusp of manhood. His voice may be changing and he may want more independence, but he's also terrified of Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), the man across the street who enjoys nothing so much as stealing tricycles from little girls. His best friend is a little burping goober named Chowder (Sam Lerner), who couldn't care less about growing up. When DJ's parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara) leave him alone for a couple nights with badassbabysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), DJ and Chowder quickly come to discover that as evil as they thought Nebbercracker was, he's an old softie compared to his house, which literally comes to life and begins devouring people.
"Monster House" is directed by newcomer Gil Kenan and utilizes the latest version of the motion capture technology utilized on Robert Zemeckis' "Polar Express." Rather than emulating the spooky dead-eyed photorealism of "Express," "Monster House" goes for a cartoon-y aesthetic that almost excuses the pallor in the characters' skin and their lusterless hair. The kids are expressive, but the older figures, particularly the ones voiced by Jon Heder and Jason Lee are creepy.
Ultimately, the environments are far more interesting than the humans navigating within them. In the film's second half, when the house really gets to ham it up, the movie becomes vastly more entertaining. It has an Oriental rug for a tongue, a chandelier for a uvula, a mouth of wooden teeth and more personality than any of the kids. Aspects of the house will also be enhanced when the movie shows in Real D's digital 3D format. If 3D doesn't give you a headache, I imagine that's the way to see "Monster House."
Getting into the house is a bit of a story-telling challenge and the early scenes exploring the main characters are dull. Given that screenwriters Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab wrote Jack Black's cheeky "Heat Vision and Jack" pilot, the amount of in-joke cheekiness is surprisingly limited, though a couple '80s movies get shout-outs that will go over the heads of the target demographic. The Chowder character, a shrill mix of gas and one-liners, will be big with the kids, but for this viewer,he was merely annoying.
As a spooky haunted house ride, "Monster House" would have made for a great Halloween release. That Sony is opening the movie in July is an acknowledgement of just how thin the marketplace has been for kids this summer. It'll probably clean up as a result, leaving theaters full of fidgety adults.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times