Creepy fixer-upper puts kids in a fix

Times Staff Writer

When you're 12, nothing is as scary as puberty. Except, that is, if you happen to live across the street from a crotchety old man and his spooky, ramshackle house, the lawn of which has a tendency to consume toys, pets and possibly even people.

In the animated feature "Monster House," the eerie domicile vexes young DJ, who peers at it from his upstairs bedroom window through a telescope, scribbling down every detail. It's an old-fashioned haunted house story that might have been lifted from a vintage episode of "Scooby-Doo," but it's freshly executed by young director Gil Kenan and a top-grade voice cast. Using the motion-capture technique popularized by one of the film's executive producers, Robert Zemeckis, in "The Polar Express," Kenan's hyperactive visual style aptly reflects the soon-to-be raging hormones of his pre-teen protagonists.

DJ, voiced by Mitchel Musso, is a bit gawky and tries to hide his cracking voice from his clueless parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), who depart the day before Halloween for a dental conclave of some kind. That's more than OK to DJ, who just wants to track the mysterious goings on at the home of his neighbor Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi).

When DJ's portly best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner), loses a brand-new basketball to the lawn, it triggers a confrontation with Nebbercracker that draws the boys into a life-and-death struggle, made only slightly less frightening by the appearance of the pert and resourceful Jenny (Spencer Locke), the thinking adolescent's dream girl. A redhead from a crosstown girls' school, Jenny enters the scene selling candy door to door with a pitch that would serve her well on "The Apprentice."

The boys are smitten, but first things first: The trio must deal with the house that, it soon becomes clear, is somehow alive. After failing to convince the local two-man police force (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) of the imminent danger, DJ, Chowder and Jenny pool their talents to address the problem. Kathleen Turner plays the house -- sort of; her expressions were captured and then animators modeled the building's movements on them, making it an actual character and raising the stakes considerably. The rollicking action sequences that follow are like a roller-coaster ride (an experience that is likely enhanced by seeing it in Real D, a 3D format available in selected theaters).

The heart of the movie, however, is the relationships of the kids. The screenplay by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler is witty and intelligent, and the characters sound more real than those in most live-action fare. Supporting characters such as Maggie Gyllenhaal's punkette babysitter, Jason Lee's Keanu-esque rocker and Jon Heder's video game master/pizza cook are also memorable even in relatively brief screen time.

Though it's far too intense for small children (8 and older seems a safe bet), "Monster House" finally has a return-to-innocence sweetness that recalls some of the work of another of its executive producers -- Steven Spielberg. Kids may grow up too fast today to embrace the film's familiar message of the virtues of an unhurried adolescence, but it's nice to be reminded of the possibility.


'Monster House'

MPAA rating: PG for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor and brief language

A Columbia Pictures release. Director Gil Kenan. Producers Steve Starkey, Jack Rapke. Screenplay by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler, story by Harmon & Schrab. Director of photography Xavier Grobet Perez. Editors Adam P. Scott, Fabienne Rawley. Costume designer Ruth Myers. Music Douglas Pipes. Production designer Ed Verreaux. Visual effects supervisor Jay Redd. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

In general release. Shown in Real D (3D) in selected theaters.

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