There have been scads of movies modeled after Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” (including the 1983 anthology picture that explicitly used the title, with one segment directed by Steven Spielberg, who also produced with John Landis); after all, that series was an unquestioned classic. But this computer-animated flick is unusual in that it’s more reminiscent of a failed TV show, Spielberg’s own mid-eighties anthology series “Amazing Stories,” which was intended as a sort of modern version of Serling’s but flopped in spite of all the talent behind and in front of the camera that lent their support. Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, who’s also shown an interest in creepy television series, are two of the executive producers of this picture, which mimics the whimsically scary, slightly grotesque but essentially good-natured and often ostentatiously uplifting tone that “Stories” aimed at.
The result seems somewhat stretched out and overlong at an hour-and-a-half, and the big revelation and culminating resolution that close the movie take a direction that’s more strange than satisfying. “Monster House” is also too intense for really young children; toddlers will probably be petrified. But kids five or six and up will identify with the youngsters in the story and take to the tale’s likable ghoulishness and slapsticky scariness, and the adults who tag along with them should find at least mild enjoyment in its general sprightliness and occasional satiric jabs, even though they may well get a mite dizzy over the roller-coaster action and queasy at the level of stickiness that infects the last thirty minutes or so (a typically Spielbergian fault). But while no classic, its cutting-edge motion-capture animation (the same technique used in “The Polar Express”) brings very impressive results, and its amusement-park-ride exuberance will certainly appeal to the target audience.
There’s not a great deal of story to “Monster House,” which delivers just what the title promises. Gangly teen DJ (Mitchel Musso) observes his nasty across-the-street neighbor Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) scoop up anything that lands on the lawn of his big, scary house and run off any kids who step on his property. When his parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara) go off on a trip and he’s left behind with abrasive baby-sitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her seedy boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee), DJ and his goofy pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) get into an argument with Nebbercracker and the old fellow collapses of an apparent heart attack and is carted off by ambulance. Left vacant, the house itself goes berserk, sucking in hapless people–including Bones and a couple of Keystone Kops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon)–which leads DJ, Chowder and their new friend, Jenny (Spencer Locke), a sassy girl who comes by selling school Halloween candy, to enter the house and ferret out its secrets. Much mayhem ensues, but eventually Nebbercracker returns a changed man, the house’s mysterious past is revealed (something that involves a charactr voiced by Kathleen Turner) and everything is made safe for the Trick-or-Treaters on the upcoming holiday.
If the story’s mixture of juvenile rowdiness (including a visit to a spaced-out delivery man voiced by Jon Heder), kiddie-safe scares and calculated last-act sweetness is relatively thin–(there’s that “Amazing Stories” feel)–it leaves ample opportunity for director Gil Kenan to mount a chain of frantic action scenes punctuated by heartwarming pauses. The pace is quick, and the visuals colorful and vibrant (even if the lack of “supporting” characters throughout gives a peculiarly desolate look to the surroundings); and though the dialogue is hardly the stuff of genius, it boasts some decent quips and generally amusing banter, and the voice cast delivers it enthusiastically. The high decibel level and over-the-top action in the culminating chase sequence–this “House” proves a very mobile home–will exhaust some older viewers rather than excite them, but probably won’t bother younger ones, who seem accustomed to such raucous, non-stop stuff. (They, on the other hand, might find some of the emotional outpourings in the final reel a bit sappy.)
If “Monster House” does nothing else, it demonstrates that the motion-capture animation technique has a real future. As for the movie per se, it’s no cinematic dream house, but despite flaws in design and construction, it’s worth a walk-through. (Some theatres, incidentally, will be offering a 3-D print as well as the conventional flat ones. If interested, check ahead of time.)