June 30, 2006

Goofy fantasy never quite jells in “Monster House”

By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Expanding on the
motion-capture animation technique he deployed in his lyrical
Christmas tale "The Polar Express," exec producer Robert
Zemeckis and a young UCLA film school grad named Gil Kenan,
making his debut as a feature director, have engineered a comic
adventure-scare movie for children in "Monster House."

There is no monster in the dilapidated, crumbling relic,
which is the title character. Instead, the house itself is the
monster. It's an idea that works in fits and starts. The
"horror," as such, is mostly exterior. When the movie finally
enters the haunted abode, a good 52 minutes into the picture,
it turns into a Halloween fun ride. Floors collapse and
sections of the building develop carnivorous attitudes, but the
movie soon enough scrambles back outside so the house can
resume swallowing passers-by and storming down suburban streets
after its prey.

"Monster" will be enjoyed by youngsters, but adults -- for
all the suggestive wordplay and anatomical references thrown in
for their benefit -- may find this more trick than treat. The
film opens July 21, odd only because this would be a perfect
Halloween movie. Nevertheless, the film should attract a solid
family audience.

Kenan staged all the action in a 20-by-20-square-foot
arena, where his actors dodged and ducked while wearing special
suits so their physical motion got recorded digitally. The data
was then turned over to animation supervisor Troy Saliba and
lead character animator T. Dan Hofstedt to blend the live
action and CG imagery. Whether this is a wave of the animated
future is still in doubt as it looks inferior to pure CG
animation. Human characters have rubbery faces and limbs, and
the voices seemingly bear little relationship to these
emaciated bodies.

A couple of 12-year-old boys, DJ (Michael Musso) and
Chowder (Sam Lerner), believe something truly creepy is
happening across the street from DJ's house. While his parents
(Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) are away a day before
Halloween and his baby-sitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is
wonderful) is otherwise engaged with her boyfriend, Bones
(Jason Lee), the pair investigates along with their new friend
Jenny (Spencer Locke).

The house belongs to grouchy old man Nebbercracker (Steve
Buscemi), who chases away anyone who trespasses on his
overgrown lawn. In a fit of rage when DJ dares to step on this
lawn, Nebbercracker collapses and gets carted off by ambulance.
Feeling guilty of "murder," DJ becomes convinced the house is
haunted by a malevolent spirit, possibly Nebbercracker himself.

Local police (Nick Cannon and Kevin James) are of little
help -- especially when the house swallows them along with a
stray dog and Bones -- so it falls to the youngsters to get to
the bottom of the mystery. They eventually realize the
structure is the incarnation of Nebbercracker's late, gigantic
and tragic wife (Kathleen Turner). Then Nebbercracker himself
shows up, still quite alive, thank you, and the quartet must
find a way to destroy the evil house and liberate the "spirit"
of the old man's beloved wife.

For all the film's playful music (by Douglas Pipes),
colorful design (by Ed Verreaux) and rambunctious characters,
this Roald Dahl-esque tale and cornball fantasy never quite
jell into a satisfying movie experience. The move feels
frustratingly disjointed, like that lumbering, disintegrating
house storming down the street.


Nebbercracker: Steve Buscemi

Lister: Nick Cannon

Zee: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Skull: Jon Heder

Landers: Kevin James

Bones: Jason Lee

Mom: Catherine O'Hara

Constance: Kathleen Turner

Dad: Fred Willard

Director: Gil Kenan; Screenwriters: Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab,
Pamela Pettler; Story by: Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab; Producers:
Steve Starkey, Jack Rapke; Executive producers: Robert
Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Jason Clark; Director of
photography: Xavier Perez Grobet; Production designer: Ed
Verreaux; Music: Douglas Pipes; Costume designer: Ruth Myers;
Editors: Adam P. Scott; Fabienne Rawley.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter