It has been a long-standing belief, perhaps perpetuated by 1978's iconic horror classic, "Halloween
," that every town or neighborhood has a spooky-looking house that everyone tries to avoid at all costs. Sometimes this stigma is born out of a crime that might have occurred there in the past, while other timesprobably most of the timethe fear is solely based on the house's foreboding physical aesthetic. This legend concerning a dastardly piece of real estate is at the self-explanatory center of "Monster House," a visual cornucopia that mixes horror, comedy and coming-of-age elements into an ambitious, if not overwhelmingly original, 94-minute family entertainment.
Executive produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg and directed by first-timer Gil Kenan, "Monster House" is the second film to take on the complicated motion capture process by which actors' body movements and facial expressions are recorded on a computer and then turned into animated creations. With a more exaggerated design scheme than the photorealistic characters in 2004's "The Polar Express
," this latest project solves the issue some viewers (not I) had with that aforementioned masterpiecethat the animated figures had a creepy dead-eyed look to themwhile nonetheless keeping intact their exceptionally lifelike movements and mesmerizingly detailed surroundings. As such, there is no question that "Monster House" is the most accomplished animated feast for the eyes since "The Polar Express
." On the basis of story and plot developments, the picture often seems to be a creative flourish or two away from matching the imagination inherent in its look.
With Halloween fast approaching, 13-year-old DJ (Mitchel Musso) can't help but be intrigued by the decrepit house sitting across the street from him, owned by a nasty old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) who terrorizes anyone who steps foot on his property. While attempting to retrieve a ball for best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) that has rolled into his yard, he is snatched up by Nebbercracker and angrily chastised about trespassing. Their scuffle is cut short when Nebbercracker collapses dead on the lawn.
Immediately after the owner is taken away by ambulance, DJ and Chowder notice the house has taken on a literal life of its own, intent on eating up anyone who crosses its path. With DJ's parents (Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard) out of town and a self-involved teenage babysitter named Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who can't be bothered by her charge's claims, it is up to DJ, Chowder and cute candy-selling neighborhood visitor Jenny (Spencer Locke) to unlock the mystery surrounding Nebbercracker's possessed house before it snatches up any more helpless victims.
Written by Pamela Pettler (2005's "Corpse Bride
"), Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, "Monster House" has a fantastic setup leading to a less satisfying payoff. The premise itself isn't so much the problem as what is done with it; the movie seems to be leading to a scary, slam-bang conclusion that it doesn't quite live up to. For a while, though, the film borders on brilliant, sucking the viewer in with a heavy gothic atmosphere, chilling moodiness and inventive characterizations that would make no less than Tim Burton envious. The Halloween setting is also vividly on display, with jack-o'-lanterns, holiday decorations and trick-or-treaters lurking in every frame. In this respect, an October release date would have been infinitely more festive and appropriate than the odd July slot it has received.
Sugarcoating is not on director Gil Kenan's menu, which only makes his straightforward, naturalistic portrayal of adolescence and the darker corners hidden amidst a seemingly idyllic suburbia all the more refreshing. From the growing pains of DJ and Chowder, who are discovering the opposite sex and on the verge of leaving their childhoods behind, to the non-saccharine, frequently unsympathetic handling of the adult roles, to the very real dangers that the evil house symbolizes, "Monster House" is a film that both adults and kids of around seven and up can appreciate without once being second-guessed or talked down to. As for younger potential audience members, their ability to watch the picture without being frightened out of their wits all depends on how sensitive they are. There is no violence, but there is a sizable helping of intense situations and scary images.
At around the one-hour mark, once DJ, Chowder and Jenny find themselves trapped in the house and on a search to destroy the rickety construction's heartthe furnacewithout being caught, "Monster House" curiously loses a lot of the momentum it should be just starting to ratchet up to a higher level. This sequence, which could have been the picture's highlight and would have been better to be the climax, is too slow-paced to be suspenseful and comes to a close way too soon. As for the real third act, which involves a chase between the house and the kids, as well as several plot surprises, few of them outright satisfying, it lacks the complex grandeur that the plot demands and the threat needed to deeply involve. Never do the three protagonists appear to be in grave danger, perhaps because by that point one key development has already been revealed that has lessened the courage of director Gil Kenan's convictions.
If the culmination of "Monster House" is less than the sum of its parts, that doesn't mean that the film's foundation collapses entirely. The outcome is lacking a certain oomph, but what comes before that point is delicious to behold and a joy to experience. The performances are all solidapart from main stars Mitchel Musso (2003's "Secondhand Lions
"), Sam Lerner (2004's "Envy
") and Spencer Locke (2004's "Spanglish
"), forming an endearing, unforced bond as friends DJ, Chowder and Jenny, Maggie Gyllenhaal (2005's "Happy Endings
") is especially memorable and acerbic as boy-crazy babysitter Zeethe enveloping autumnal ambiance is first-rate, and the mise en scene
is classier and more sophisticated than the average animated pic. Initial summer release date and isolated narrative missteps aside, "Monster House" has all the makings of an enduring cinematic work that should become a mainstay of the Halloween season.