You can say this for Monster House: There are no damn talking animals. After enduring an endless succession of wisecracking CGI critters, this kiddie horror flick is blissfully free of all things cute and cuddly. Instead, first-time director Gil Kenan follows in the footsteps of Gremlins to deliver a scary and quick-witted movie for the pre-teen set. Its clever, morbid sense of humor is reminiscent of Roald Dahl's children's books, but with a more contemporary flavor. Though it's too scary for the wee-est ones, the 9-year-old in your house will probably love it.
Left for the weekend with a slack babysitter, DJ (Mitchel Musso) and his best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) become convinced that creepy old neighbor Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) is up to no good. He has a long history of claiming every ball, toy and small dog that comes within knocking distance of his creepy old house. When Nebbercracker is taken to the hospital after a heart attack, the house gets even scarier, revealing itself to be a voracious and vicious creature with windows for eyes, jagged floorboards for teeth and a long oriental carpet for a tongue. As you might suspect, the adults are completely clueless about the danger in their neighborhood and, with Halloween just around the corner, the boys team up with a plucky Girl Scout (Spencer Locke) to stop the carnivorous dwelling from turning a long line of costumed kiddies into hors d'oeuvres.
The crafty script strives to spark the same kind of adolescent enthusiasm that The Goonies or E.T. generated decades ago. Kenan gets good mileage out of the "spooky old house on your block" mystique and the kids in the film have intelligence and autonomy. It's nice to see, for a change, a children's film that doesn't talk down to its audience.
The cast of voice actors is solid; Buscemi gives a surprisingly heartfelt performance as the angry old man with a secret, and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) is awesome as a video game dork-guru.
The real star, however, is the house itself. A wonderfully macabre, Tim Burton-esque nightmare, the animators have worked overtime to outfit it with a wide array of contraptions and outlandish abilities. It's a marvelous and stunning creation that breathes with freakish life.
Nevertheless, Monster House isn't the family classic it might have been. The characters never rise above typical animation stereotypes the soft-spoken and curious hero, the obnoxious fat dweeb, the overachieving love interest and the film occasionally loses track of logic. (Wouldn't nearby trick-or-treaters notice a house uproot itself and roam around?)
Perhaps the film's biggest challenge, however, is overcoming its own animation. A big part of the magic in a film like E.T. is watching real kids on a real adventure. The best animated films feature characters that couldn't convincingly exist in the real world talking cars, insects and prehistoric mammals. Monster House puts all its focus on plastic-faced kids hanging out, spying on a sinister old house and getting into trouble. For the first 30 minutes before any of the action kicks in the animation seems an especially poor fit. It's hard to care about kids who don't really look like kids, living in a neighborhood that doesn't look like a real neighborhood.
With recent advances in CGI and special effects, there's really no reason other than popular trends Monster House needed to be animated. Had the filmmakers chosen to make their film live-action, they might have created something truly memorable.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.