A cleverly animated CGI cartoon with no cuddly animals-score No. 1 for Monster House. A plot that brings to mind both the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-score No. 2. A quirky collection of voice talent that includes Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jon Heder, Fred Willard, and Kevin James-score No. 3.
But Monster House (rated PG for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor, and brief language) squanders most of the good will these elements generate by also pandering to the worst impulses of kids and, perhaps more pointedly, adults who'd like to believe that they'll never become as stodgy as their parents.
First-time director Gil Kenan utilizes motion-capture technology, an animation technique pioneered in The Polar Express (and used by Peter Jackson in bringing Gollum and King Kong to life in his live-action films). Motion capture-which applies animation to live-action footage of actors covered by special sensors-produces some interesting results, but it often generates character movements that are oddly stilted. Though visually striking, Monster House shares none of the fluidity and grace of a film like Cars.
The story involves a dilapidated, creaky old house set in the middle of an otherwise pleasant neighborhood. The resident of this sinister eyesore is old Nebbercracker (Buscemi), a feared harasser of any child who dares step onto his lawn. The young DJ (Mitchel Musso) lives across the street from Nebbercracker and keeps a watchful eye on the suspicious proceedings at the old house from his bedroom window.
DJ is left with an overnight babysitter just a few days before Halloween. An errant basketball causes an encounter with Nebbercracker that ends with the old man collapsing from an apparent heart attack. DJ and his best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner), are left with feelings of guilt and the growing suspicion that the house across the street is somehow after them despite the absence of its owner.
Monster House delves into some very strange, morbid, Tim Burtonesque territory as the plot progresses. More troubling is the tiredly subversive approach that the film takes to childhood, as adults and authority figures are imbeciles while the kids speak and act disrespectfully and rudely. DJ, the main character, does evidence a compassionate streak towards the film's end, but that doesn't make one much more excited about the thought of kids in the audience looking to their onscreen counterparts as role models.