July 20, 2006

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Monster House (PG)
A creaky old CGI house scares the pants off a couple of CGI kids when it seems to come alive and start eating things (tricycles, teenage slackers) in Monster House, an animated Halloween-themed movie.

And, heck, if you can have Christmas in July, why not Halloween?

DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) and Chowder (Sam Lerner) are friends who can't decide if they are too old for trick-or-treating (DJ's argument) or not (Chowder's position). DJ finds the potential spookiness of costumes nothing compared to the weirdness he's convinced is going on right across the street. There, in the middle of his well groomed suburb, sits a ready-made haunted house, complete with menacing windows and signs in the yard warning "keep off" and "beware." DJ assumes that the thing of which one should beware is Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who takes the "you, kid, stay off my lawn" rant to a new level of irateness. One toe on his grass causes Nebbercracker to spring from inside and threaten horrors until the children run off. Any balls or bikes or kites that land on his property are gone forever.

DJ has been documenting all of these toy-snatchings, Rear Window-style, with a telescope and camera from across the street, so when Chowder's basketball bounces across the street DJ is loathe to go get it. But, of course, the boys find themselves in Nebbercracker's yard, exchanging yells with the old man when suddenly, plop, Nebbercracker falls over, apparently, dead.

Or is he? Though DJ is fairly certain Nebbercracker's mortal life is over, he believes the old man's spirit has returned to the house, turning the inanimate two-story abode into a monster.

The boys' investigation eventually leads them into the house, an adventure on which they are joined by Jenny (Spencer Locke), the standard know-it-all girl who always rounds out these trios. She shows up to sell candy bars to the house and the boys save her (though, sadly, not her wagon full of chocolate) from winding up in the belly (which in this case is the basement) of the beast.

Our plucky trio is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 years old — DJ's parents still leave him with a babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), when they head out of town for a few days. The kids are old enough to debate the trick-or-treat question and for Chowder and DJ to fight over the affections of Jenny but not so old that they can't still understand things like a possessed house — a concept, they say, too difficult for the adult mind to grasp.

This is probably about the age of the target viewer — kids maybe older than 8 and younger than probably 13, when the whole CGI-house-that-eats-toys thing would seem lame. There are the occasional funny moments — Zee's complete disinterest in DJ, her trouble-making boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee), Jenny's somewhat exaggerated straight-arrow-ness. And some of the animation is absolutely beautiful — especially when the story turns to the some fantastical tale of Nebbercracker's wife a onetime sideshow freak (she was a "giantess").

But between these scenes are stretches of kid-friendly adventure that, frankly, are probably best enjoyed by kids. (Now I issue my own "beware": though mystery-loving 8-year-olds and even some very mature monster-loving 7-year-olds might enjoy this movie, some of these scenes do have some supernatural scariness to them. The house becomes more anthropomorphic as the story goes on with sinister, leering window eyes and a pointy-teethed door-mouth.) B-


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