Monster House

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Monster House
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

I remember two things – among others. I’m not senile (yet) - from when I was a kid: a spooky old house in our neighborhood and a crotchety old recluse that scared you away, keeping your ball if it fell on the roof or in the garden of his/her home. Neither was really scary, except in my child’s imagination, but for DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso) the danger is all too real with the building across the street in “Monster House.”

First time animation feature director Gil Kenan makes a terrific debut with a truly nostalgic reminiscence of childhood scares and dares. DJ has kept the creaky old house across the street under close surveillance when he sees the owner, Old Man Nebbercracker (voice of Steve Buscemi), takes every ball or bicycle that lands on his property. But, there is something more sinister afoot when the old codger is taken away in an ambulance and the house is left to its own nefarious devices.

As the true nature of Nebbercracker manor surfaces, DJ, his best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner), and new recruit, Jenny (Spencer Locke), join forces to, quite literally, get to the house’s heart in what I consider to be the first real kids’ horror movie. (Be warned, parents, that this film is aimed at the 8 and up crowd (and I mean “up” to, oh, age 991/2, or so), and not for the little ones.)

Frosh filmmaker Kenan takes the amusing and scary story, by Dan Harmon, Ron Schrab and Pamela Pettler, and builds upon it with solid CGI animation and special F/X, believable dialog for the kids and good vocal performances across the board. Surrounding our intrepid little vocal trio of Musso, Lerner and Locke are a bevy of veteran actors – Steve Buscemi, as Nebbercracker, is joined by Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Maggie Gyllenhaal (perfectly voicing DJ’s babysitter, Zee), Jason Lee, Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Jon Heder and, last but certainly not least, Kathleen Turner.

The title house is truly a scary and malevolent entity that provides plenty of chills and thrills for older kids and adults. The heroes - DJ, Chowder and Jenny – are brave and daring, even when frightened to their toes, as they join forces to put a stop to the monster’s mayhem. They are intelligent, resourceful kids who sound like real 12-year olds as the squabble about pre-teen things but know they have to depend on each other to succeed. The filmmakers give us good role models with these three characters.

Monster House” is a down to earth comedy/horror kids film that is as intelligent as its main characters. It deserves to be seen on the big screen but, heck, I’d watch it on a little TV! I give it an A-.

DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso) watches Nebbercracker (voice of Steve Buscemi, HBO's "The Sopranos," "Art School Confidential"), the crank across the street, with binoculars from his bedroom window.  "Get offa my lawn!" screams the old guy as he absconds with yet another child's toy, but DJ sees something more sinister.  When DJ's best friend Chowder (voice of Sam Lerner, "Envy") loses his beloved basketball in the out of bounds yard, DJ attempts to retrieve it and Nebbercracker's resulting histrionics cause him to collapse.  Believing a murder hangs over his head, DJ is now convinced that Nebbercracker's empty home has become a "Monster House."

Executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis and feature debuting director Gil Kenan employ the motion capture animation used for "Polar Express" with considerably better results.  "Polar Express" was supposed to be a touching Christmas film, but the process rendered its human characters creepily vacant.  "Monster House," on the other hand, is full of welcome creepiness due to the terrific script by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab (of the never aired cult television show "Heat Vision and Jack") and Pamela Pettler ("Corpse Bride"), great imagery and the dynamite voice work by its uniquely assembled cast.  Beware, however, that "Monster House" is not kids' play - some adult level scares that may be too intense for the wee ones.

With a tip of its hat to "Polar Express" star Tom Hanks, "Monster House" begins with a "Forrest Gump" homage, following a swirling autumn leaf to its cross path with a little pigtailed girl (voice of Ryan Newman) joyously lalalaing her way along on her tricycle. Until, that is, her front wheel becomes ensnared in Nebbercracker's lawn.  (Watch for another Hanks homage when Chowdah's Wilson b-ball is given a face a la "Castaway.") It just figures too, that with Halloween approaching, DJ's folks (voices of Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard, "A Mighty Wind") leave him in the care of gothy babysitter Zee (voice of Maggie Gyllenhaal, "The Great New Wonderful"), whose boyfriend, the aptly named Bones (voice of Jason Lee, TV's "My Name Is Earl") twists his tales of possessed houses back to terrorize him some more.  But Bones becomes one of the malevolent dwelling's first victims.  And after DJ and Chowdah rescue a damsel unknowingly in distress, Jenny (voice of Spencer Locke), from the house's clutches, they begin to wonder just whatever happened to the *Mrs.* Nebbercracker seen in photographs hung in the house's hallway.

With its childhood gothic imagery (production design by Ed Verreaux, "X-Men: The Last Stand") and carnival freak show subplot, "Monster House" feels like something sprung from the mind of Tim Burton.  The house has a face made by two upstairs windows, not unlike those pumpkin slices of Amityville's lighted 'eyes,' and a door teethed with uprooted floorboards. Old, gnarly trees even provide the thing with arms, and yes it does uproot itself.  Even destroyed, this house comes together in a weird, wooden maelstrom that recalls "Little Otik," Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's unsettling animated log.  Where "Monster House" really one ups "Polar Express," however, is in its characters.  While the central DJ may be a bit too wan, Chowdah is full of preadolescent maleness (the two, in fact, have characteristics of Laurel and Hardy).  Most delightful is Zee, drolly voiced by Gyllenhaal and given just the right type of aggressively slouched body language.  Another inspired character is Skull (voice of Jon Heder, "Napoleon Dynamite"), a truly vile video game nerd looked up to by the boys for his ability to play for four days straight on one quarter, a gallon of chocolate milk and an adult diaper.  Officer Landers (voice of Kevin James, TV's "The King of Queens") exudes condescending small town copitude, although his partner Lister (voice of Nick Cannon, "Drumline," "Roll Bounce") comes uncomfortably close to the minstrelry of Stepin Fetchit for comfort.

"Monster House" is a great piece of nostalgia for us baby boomers who can remember the universal neighborhood crank of days gone by - in these times where neighbors barely know each other does this shared memory even exist anymore?  Thankfully, spooky old house and all, he has been preserved in this fun house scare.

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