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Monster House

Middling Scarefest for the Pre-Teen Set

Produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg and directed by first-time filmmaker Gil Kenan, Monster House is the latest family-oriented animated film to hit the multiplexes. Where Pixar has anthropomorphized everything from toys (Toy Story) to automobiles (Cars), other animation studios, including Blue Sky (Ice Age I and II) and DreamWorks Animation (Over the Hedge, Shrek I and II) have followed Pixar’s lead to highly profitable results. The overall effect, though, has meant that the expectations and hype surrounding a Disney or Pixar film has all-but disappeared. Instead, we’re now getting half a dozen computer-animated films a year, of varying, sometimes negligible quality (e.g., Hoodwinked). Monster House falls squarely in the middle, combining the usual mix of eye-catching visuals, amusement park-influenced set pieces, a formulaic storyline, and erratic, hit-or-miss humor.

DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), a pre-teen on the verge of puberty, is looking forward to becoming an adult and skipping Halloween trick-or-treating permanently. That doesn’t stop his clumsy, cape wearing best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner), from arguing for one more go at Halloween. DJ has more important things on his mind though. He keeps his telescope trained on the gray, dilapidated house across the street owned by the neighborhood curmudgeon/crank, Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). DJ’s mom (Catherine O'Hara) and dad (Fred Willard) take off for a dentists’ convention, leaving DJ in the disinterested hands of metal-queen/babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who promptly breaks the rules and invites her rocker-wannabee boyfriend, Skull (Jon Heder) over.

Soon enough, DJ and Nebbercracker butt heads over Chowder’s new basketball that has strayed on to Nebbercracker’s lawn. Nebbercracker’s weak heart apparently gives out and an ambulance arrives to take him to the hospital. Nebbercracker’s house quickly shows its malevolent side, first threatening a girl selling candy door to door, Jenny (Spencer Locke), than anyone or anything that comes near the house. Disbelieved by the local flatfoots, two cops, Landers (Kevin James) and Lister (Nick Cannon), DJ, Chowder, and Jenny are forced to pool their talents and try to stop the house from wrecking havoc in the neighborhood.

As a producer and director, Robert Zemeckis has been here before, if by “here” we mean family-friendly computer animated territory, with 2004’s The Polar Express, an adaptation of the Chris Van Allsburg book of the same name. Zemeckis released The Polar Express simultaneously in 3D/IMAX and on traditional screens. Zemeckis and Spielberg have done the same with Monster House. It shows in practically every frame, every setup, and every pay-off to every scene, as Kenan and his animators constantly use multiple planes or soft-focus background planes to make objects “pop”. Unfortunately, the 3D effects are severely diminished on a flat screen. Diminished doesn’t mean eliminated, though. A bit of extra attention will help viewers create a pseudo-3D effect. Children might not notice the difference, but will get more of the immersive experience Zemeckis and Spielberg are obviously striving for by opting for the 3D/IMAX version.

Animation wise, Monster House uses the much-hyped motion-capture technology that allowed Tom Hanks to “play” multiple roles in The Polar Express. The results here are better than in The Polar Express, the characters move more smoothly, and their faces more expressive (minus plastic-looking hair, that is). Zemeckis, Kenan and their animators try, but don't come close, to matching Tim Burton's flair for the macabre (e.g., The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride). They come closer, though, in matching Burton's fondness for the grotesque, if not early on in Monster House then later on, when DJ and his friends discover Nebbercracker's tragic-comic backstory. In a film geared toward children and their parents, Nebbercracker’s revelations are darker and more disturbing than anything that’s come before, meaning Monster House is definitely not for small children.

Monster House is at its best when it’s touching on the main character’s shift into adolescence or scaling down haunted house/survival horror conventions for pre-teenagers. Thankfully, Zemeckis and Spielberg (or Kenan, but that’s unlikely for a first-time director) did away with the sub-par, forgettable songs that popped up unnecessarily in The Polar Express. All in all, small children will probably find Monster House too frightening, but pre-teens will probably find Monster House the right mix of thrills and chills, parents will find themselves modestly amused for 90 minutes, casual animation fans will glance at their watches with increasing frequency, and horror fans, well horror fans will have to look elsewhere for adult-oriented scares.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars