Monster House is a wholly enjoyable throwback to ’80s puberty-peril films that uses the same performance-capture technique as The Polar Express and was produced by childhood-fantasy gods Robert Zemeckis (who directed Polar) and Steven Spielberg.
For all of Polar’s technical wizardry, the animated kids had dead, empty eyes almost to the point where they looked like Christmastime zombies. Here, D.J., Chowder and Jenny have the eyes, souls and hearts of Mikey, Chunk and Andy from The Goonies. Pitched straight at those at the eternally in-between age of 11, Monster House could have the same cultural arms in 20 years.
It certainly pounds into a common childhood memory of the neighborhood “haunted” house. Back then, the power of a light in the night or a spooky sound came to us by the power of suggestion. Here, the home becomes a formidable foe that’s more of a young-viewer freak-out than it might look; the dread and boo scares might get some adults. And with a sad tale at its center, and an almost-invisible body-image message, it’s not just campy middle school macabre.
Woe is the kid who trespasses on the Nebbercracker lawn or, worse yet, lets a toy or tricycle roll on it. Old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) crazily lurches after anyone who comes near and keeps the loot for himself in his spooky house. Rumor has it the man might be a crazed killer.
Young D.J. (Mitchel Musso) knows this story. In the care of a sitter while his parents are away, D.J.’s young enough to be scared of Nebbercracker, but old enough to bait him along with buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner), who wears a cape instead of dancing the Truffle Shuffle.
After Nebbercracker keels over while terrorizing D.J. on his lawn, Chowder tells D.J.: “You’re just freaking out because you killed a guy today. … Life goes on, for you.” Maybe for Nebbercracker’s house, too, which D.J. swears is now alive and calling him on the phone.
Except for Chowder, no one believes him: not “older” girl Jenny (Spencer Locke), whom D.J. and Chowder are crushing on; not sitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose J. Crew shell hides a Hot Topic core or her dim boyfriend, Bones (Jason Lee); not even a pair of bumbling, put-upon cops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon). These supporting characters, along with a pudgy video-game king voiced by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder, all are great fun.
A spooky incident converts skeptic Jenny to D.J. and Chowder’s side, and the trio becomes convinced that, on this Halloween night, the house is luring trick-or-treaters with their prized possessions in order to eat them. Once the trio battles the demonic domicile, it’s a jolly good ride to the end, which strains a bit in being crazy and cacophonous as the house lurches down a street. Even for an animated film, it’s a bit much to believe the kids do what they do against it.
The kids don’t look normal, either, but it’s an appropriate off-scheme, away from photorealism we’re used to from computer animation. (As with Polar, actors’ movements were captured by computer and digitally animated.) There’s a pliable Claymation look, with some characters exhibiting a California Raisins-style smushiness. (One complaint: Zemeckis can stop aping the Forrest Gump floating feather shot in his animated endeavors. It was a ticket in Polar, a leaf here. If forced to track the path of a drop of mead in next year’s similarly shot Beowulf, I’m out.)
Director Gil Kenan and screenwriters Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler remember to balance out Monster House‘s elements of Burton and boyhood. D.J. and Chowder (its best character, a fiercely loyal ’fraidy cat with a lacking home life) are trying to be older than they are, but are not yet ready to shed boys’ trappings of stuffed animals and insecurities.
Not in any sort of icky way, the boys learn about their own bodies at the same time they’re learning about the house’s; its frame is clearly a face, and there are pipes with claws, wood-splinter teeth, even a gag reflex. When it rumbles to life, the house resembles a beastie from Pink Floyd’s The Wall and roars with the voice of someone slyly playing opposites with the last time they voiced a feature film.
Monster House‘s biggest disadvantage is its summer release date — the cool chill it emulates should also hit people in the face when they walk out of the theater. (Three-month window be damned, you can bet it will be on DVD on Oct. 31, which is a Tuesday.) But after Polar‘s annoying imperative to believe in Santa or else, here’s a film truly alive with Halloween’s mischief and magic.