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Monster House   C-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Gil Kenan
Writers: Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, Pamela Pettler
Cast: Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke, Steve Buscemi, Nick Cannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jon Header, Kevin James, Jason Lee, Catherine O'Hara, Kathleen Turner, Fred Willard.

Review by Rob Vaux

Monster House follows closely in the footsteps of Tim Burton's animated projects. Though created on computers via the same motion-capture technology used in executive producer Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express, it has all the earmarks of the stop-motion puppetry that brought Jack Skellington to life. You can see it in the characters' oversized heads and the herky-jerky way they move through the scenery. The shadows of the title domicile hold terrors similar to those of The Nightmare Before Christmas, with tendril-pipes curling from the ceiling and gaping pits opening up in the floor. The subject matter is clearly Burton-inspired, as three children face off against the local fixer-upper, which has a habit of devouring more than its owner's bank account. Zemeckis adores such ghoulishness, as does director Gil Kenan, who clearly planned this for a Halloween release. And yet in their emulation, they demonstrate just how challenging it can be to duplicate Burton's tone... and how badly it can go wrong when that vital spark is missing.

The animation itself struggles from the get-go. Its obvious artifice fails to emulate reality or to provide a convincing alternate universe for its story to take place. The culprit may lie in the chosen format: a digital 3-D technique called REAL D. Whatever its appeal, the kinks have not yet been worked out, despite a fine autumn palette for the atmosphere and a few pieces of swooping faux camerawork. The characters themselves resemble nothing so much as bobblehead dolls brought to unholy life, and lack the conviction or charm needed to let us believe in them. Animated figures always encompass a certain exaggeration -- indeed, it's one of animation's strengths -- but Monster House's technique fails to invest them with any core of truth. They're just a mildly interesting technical exercise pretending to pass as cartoonish human beings.

A good story could conceivably counter such limitations, and Kenan has a decent premise to work with (penned by screenwriters Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab). On the day before Halloween, neighborhood sixth-grader DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) notices some strange goings-on at the old Nebbercracker place across the street. The cantankerous Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) has been stealing every ball, kite, and tricycle with the misfortune to land on his lawn, but when DJ's inadvertent trespass sends Nebbercracker to the hospital, the house itself starts to pick up the slack. Soon enough, it's adding people to its diet as well -- luring them near the porch and then pulling them through its front-door-turned-ravenous-maw to fates unknown. Its windows become hateful eyes, its porch spouts fang-like shards of wood, and the surrounding trees morph into clawed hands ready to snatch up anyone who comes near. Worse yet, it clearly has its sights set on DJ, who, with the help of Type-A prep-schooler Jenny (Spencer Locke) and the dependably out-to-lunch Chowder (Sam Lerner), intends to do the dwelling in before it can return the favor.

All well and good, but not only does the film's visual imagination struggle to keep up with the concept, but so too does Monster House botch the delicate combination of darkness and humor needed to make it work. It looks so easy when Burton does it -- ghoulish frights married with gentle whimsy in a way that lets kids know it's OK to be spooked once in awhile. But the soul of such delights is lost on Monster House, leaving its scares... well... mean. And nasty. And frankly kind of tacky. There's no sense of fun to it, no "boo-gotcha" glee that lets us enjoy the shivers up our spine. Its horrors remain firmly in PG territory, but they carry a cruel edge that sabotages any sense of fright-wig thrills. As the kids make their way through the various threats thrown up by their two-story nemesis, a dark pall settles over the proceedings, turning what should have been a carnival ride into a joyless skid down a midnight road. Exciting? Sure. But that doesn't make the experience worth relishing.

Monster House hits further trouble in the latter stages, when it tries to provide an explanation for its supernatural happenings. The secrets hidden in the bowels of the house have a disjointed, awkward feeling to them -- holding the shimmer of solid ideas, but revealed only in coughing fits and starts. In the process, the film embraces some faintly distasteful notions (apparently, fat people are really evil) while slowly losing its grip on the possibilities of its premise. The final film isn't wretchedly bad, but it clearly needed a lot more polish before being presented to the public. The technology, the story, and the bells and whistles of the house itself -- a good movie is waiting inside all of them. Monster House works at it, but just can't manage to tease anything out.

Review published 07.20.2006.

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