Monster House

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg
91 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Gil Kenan. Cast: Steve Buscemi, Nick Cannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jon Heder, Kevin James.

Anthropomorphism is all the rage at the movies: penguins marched, cars talk, and now a house is attacking kids. The latest motion-capture animation extravaganza from the House of Zemeckis (Steven Spielberg also gets executive producer credit), Monster House is a sort of PG-rated horror movie for kids. Tots will be terrified by the yawning maw of splintered wood, while adolescents and adults may wish for more from this oddly inert adventure that sets out with some interesting elements and gradually squanders them.

As Halloween rolls around, DJ (Mitchel Musso) is a kid at the crossroads of puberty. Embarrassed by his parents (Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) and picked on by his peers and even his babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), DJ turns his curious attentions—and his telescope—to the foreboding house directly across the street. Mean old Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) is suspiciously protective of the place, ferociously kicking kids off his lawn.

After DJ and his pudgy best bud Chowder cause Nebbercracker to have a hospital-grade apopleptic fit, the unattended house threatens to roll out its red-carpeted "tongue" and eat every trick-or-treater dumb enough to set foot on the property. DJ and Chowder first race to save Jenny (Spencer Locke), a cute girl peddling Halloween candy; she joins their quest to save the town from the voracious house. The secret of the house (disembodied by Kathleen Turner) is revealed in a emotional-backstory flashback sequence that's pure Tim Burton, but too much of Monster House—especially in the later-going—is merely mechanical action that forgets to make plot and character matter.

Despite the redolence of video-game narrative and the telltale, thudding literalness of the title, Monster House has some charms at the outset and conclusion. Ignoring the annoying floating-leaf that begins the picture (since Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, the digitally wafting objet d'art just won't go away), the animation is rather impressive, and screenwriters Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler squeeze some mild amusement from romantic rivalry and the skeptical cops voiced by Kevin James and Nick Cannon (not so much from the slackers played by Jon Heder and Jason Lee, unfortunately).

Along with Burton, director Gil Kenan seems to have grown up with the full complement of '80s suburban horror-adventure: Spielberg's Goonies (the Chunk-y-style Chowder), The Lady in White, A Nightmare on Elm Street, but now that we '80s kids have grown up, Monster House seems less a joyous return to innocence and more like the nightmares we have while contemplating the real-estate market.

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