Left home with a babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a long weekend, DJ (Mitchel Musso) is troubled over the menacing house across the street, and the cranky old owner (Steve Buscemi) who is insistent that no child dare step on the lawn. When the neighbor suffers a heart attack and is taken away, DJ, his rotund friend Chowder (Sam Lerner), and door-to-door candy salesgirl Jenny (Spencer Locke) decide to investigate when evidence that the house is haunted begins to mount in increasingly ghoulish ways.
Furthering the work in the milieu of "motion capture" animation, "Monster House" is a step backward in scope from the pioneering visual stardust sprinkled in the 2004 holiday hit, "The Polar Express," but a strong leap ahead in overall realism. This is a much more contained family film, taking place in one little neighborhood and focusing on a smaller number of characters.
Executive produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, "House" feels ripped from primo 1980's cinematic real estate, when both talents were wonderfully reckless preparing entertainment for pre-teens ("Gremlins," "Goonies," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"). "House" isn't a violent motion picture, but instead the atmosphere set by director Gil Kenan comes off as a "Goosebumps" knock off, lightly covering some scary terrain with a good sense of humor. Kids have always loved to be given a scare or two, and "House" delivers on that promise repeatedly with its cast of threatening neighbors and the mysterious titular dwelling.
"House" is not a nightmarish film, but in today's "keep 'em happy and upbeat" kid film marketplace, it distinguishes itself as entertainment with a willingness to spill into macabre territory without losing its prepubescent sense of carefree, AM radio adventure and imagination.
A direct opposite of the pillowy snowscapes and Christmas porn sights of "Polar Express," "House" impresses wildly with its crystal clear animation. The motion capture process uses live actors to animate over, emphasizing the movement and articulation of the characters. It's an impressive end result, with gorgeous detail given to the faces and gestures of the cast, bridging that gap between cartoon and natural movement. Plus, "House" corrects the "dead eyes" problem that plagued "Polar" for many audience members.
Even clocking in under 80 minutes, "Monster" has a difficult time expanding on the idea of a house that eats people. There's far too much padding in the screenplay, which takes a luxurious amount of screentime to get moving before the kids even go near the house. Kenan's great with scenes probing DJ and Chowder's childlike attention to detail, but while slow churning the suspense, the pace wanders away from the film. The finale attempts to liven up the movie with some detailed Spielbergian action involving the house and a nearby construction site, but it comes as shock to the system when the rest of the picture is so dormant and deliberately extended.
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