Monster House

The animated feature “Monster House” might one day become a thrilling amusement-park ride, but for now, its a mediocre fare, a quintessentially Halloween movie that strangely enough is released in the summer, perhaps to cash in on the fact that kids are out of school and have more time (and money) to spend.

Speaking of demographics, though meant for the entire family, “Monster House” will appeal mostly to young viewers; the occasionally racy words and anatomy allusions are not sufficient to allure adults, who may be bored by the generic yarn and uneven special effects, some of which are downright corny.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis, who used the same animation technique in his equally flawed “The Polar Express,” this fantasy-horror comic-adventure is directed by Gil Kenan, a young UCLA film school grad making his feature debut.

There is no monster in the dilapidated relic, which plays the lead role. As the title indicates, the house itself is the monster, though the realy scary “horror” mostly occurs outside. When the saga finally enters into the haunted place, almost an hour into the 90-minute film, it turns into a semi-exciting Halloween fun ride.

Floors collapse and rooms of the building develop bizarre human attitudes, before the movie gets back outside, so that the house can resume swallowing passers-by and demolishing middle-class suburbia, Spielberg's favorite locale.

The action, quite rudimentary, is confined to a 20-by-20-square-foot space, where the actors dodged while wearing special suits so that their physical motion can get recorded digitally. The footage was then manipulated by animation supervisor Troy Saliba and lead character animator T. Dan Hofstedt, who blend the live-action with CG imagery.

I was not a fan of “Polar Express” and I am not a champion of “Monster House” either, since both pictures use the kind of animation that's inferior to high standards of CG animation, shaped by Pixar, Disney and others. As I noted in my review of “Polar Express,” the human characters have rubbery faces and bodies, dead or inexpressive eyes, and voices that bear little relationship to the actors' bodies.

As for the story, it's really minimal and generic at that. Two young boys, only child DJ (Michael Musso) and Chowder (Sam Lerner), believe that something creepy is happening across the street from DJ's house. While DJ's parents (Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) are away a day before Halloween and his baby-sitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is distracted by her boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee), the couple begin an investigation with another friend, Jenny (Spencer Locke).

It turns out the decrepit dumpy house belongs to a strange old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who chases away anyone who trespasses on his overgrown lawn. When DJ steps on this lawn one day, Nebbercracker collapses and is sent to the hospital. All seems quiet until DJ receives a crank call from the empty home. Feeling guilty of “killing” Nebbercracker (who presumably passed away in a violent conniption), DJ becomes convinced that the house is haunted by malevolent spirit.

Predictably, when the police (Nick Cannon and Kevin James) arrive, the house swallows them, along with a stray dog and Bones. This leaves the assignment entirely in the hands of the curious youngsters.

One thing leads to another, and the inquiry convinces the kids that the house is haunted by Nebbercracker's late tragic wife (Kathleen Turner). No one really gets killed in Spielberg's children's fables, and this yarn is no exception. Hence, when Nebbercracker comes home, he joins the boys in finding a way to destroy the evil house and liberate the “spirit” of the old man's beloved wife.

While the movie benefits from Douglas Pipes' joyous music and Ed Verreaux's colorful design, these elements can't compensate entirely for the old-fashioned and formulaic yarn, which is too disjointed, perhaps because Kenan is not as accomplished a director as his honorable Hollywood producers. (He may develop in future assignments).

The opening sequence, showing moonlit trees and the house as foreboding locale, are atmopsherically good, but the rest of the PG-rated antics are just mediocre Kids may like this variation on Gothic horror pictures, in which ramshackle houses have holds over their inhabitants, and Persian rugs roll out like tongues and curl around innocent passers-bys, with the lawn sucking down tricycles and basketballs.

Among the fresh vocal talents are Maggie Gyllenhaal as the mean and negligent babysitter, and Steve Buscemi as a nasty and grouchy Nebbercracker.

The three protagonists are too much of types, a cute geek, a chubster, and a smart girl, but they are nicely voiced by newcomers Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner and Spencer Locke, as the resourceful neighborhood kids who ally together to investigate the mystery.

While flirting with horror and suspense gimmicks in animated format, the end result is a harmless fun, a mildly enjoyable but not really exciting amusement-park ride that's more like a confection. Unable to sustain interest for 90 minutes, “Monster House” is a movie of some good moments and tricks. I particularly enjoyed the sights of the house eating tricycles, local dogs, and skeptical police officers (just don't report to the LAPD).

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