Provided they do not aspire to be more than they are, some films manage to entertain even with flimsy plots. Such is the case with the just-released Monster House, whose plot turns on a boy’s investigation of a neighborhood haunted house and whose style features a new technique of motion-capture animation, the same technique used in Polar Express. The resolution of the mystery concerning the house is clumsy and the humor is somewhat uneven, but the film has a great look, and the chemistry and exuberance of the children characters in the film save it from its obvious defects.
DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) is a young boy with the sort of clueless parents one expects in a Hollywood film. Here the point is to get the parents out of the way, so the kids have the freedom to investigate a mystery to which the adults are oblivious. DJ’s parents leave him alone with the babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as she insists on being called because it makes her sound hip. The pairing of the character of the babysitter, who is alternately overbearing and neglectful, and her dufus rocker boyfriend is a nice touch.
Directly across the street from DJ’s home is a sort of Boo Radley house, occupied by an old man, Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who comes screaming from the house at any kids who dare step onto his property. One of the best uses of the new animation technique shows itself in the character of Nebbercracker, whose sharply drawn face is as memorable and as frightening as anything in the film.
Left with the babysitter, DJ and his buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner) find themselves on the yard of Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). When DJ argues and then wrestles with Nebbercracker, the elderly man collapses and is taken off in an ambulance. DJ laments, “I’m a murderer.” “No,” Chowder responds, “when it’s an accident, they call it manslaughter.” Racked with guilt, DJ suffers nightmares and then receives mysterious phone calls. When he returns the call using *69, he hears the phone ringing in the haunted house across the street.
Meanwhile, an attractive girl from a local prep school, the kind of girl who would otherwise be unapproachable for these boys, is selling Halloween candy door-to-door as she warns homeowners of the tricks that await them if they do not have an ample supply of treats. Unwittingly, she approaches Nebbercracker’s house and is nearly swallowed before being rescued by DJ and Chowder. She then joins them in their attempt to solve the mystery of the house and eradicate its evil. She explains, “Normally I don’t spend time with guys like you, but a house just tried to eat me.”
The kids uncover a series of secrets concerning the occupants of the house, including the key to its haunting, which has something to do with the wrath of Nebbercracker’s wife. Her own history, her relationship with her husband, and her motives in haunting the house are the secrets the film eventually explores. In a case where less would have been more, the film cannot seem to stop explaining the menace at the heart of the house.
As the film moves toward the confrontation with that menace, the house, now a sort of mobile home, becomes increasingly aggressive. And so do the kids. A suddenly courageous Chowder cannot resist taunting the house: “You ain’t nothin’. You’re a shack, an outhouse.” Too often, films featuring children are simply obnoxious. Here Chowder’s genuine likeableness balances out his sarcasm. In his appearance and attitude, he is reminiscent of the Ham Porter character from The Sandlot. Moreover, the genial competition between the two boys and their goofy affection for Jenny come off as authentic.
The film successfully conjures up the adolescent sense of the Gothic. It has a bit of the look and feel of last year’s Corpse Bride, with less plot but more energy.
If the plotline of kids left alone to fend for themselves in the face of a monstrous threat with a gushingly emotional happy ending sounds familiar, well, you’ll not be surprised to learn that Steve Spielberg had a hand in this production, as an executive producer. Its saving grace is that it does not take itself as seriously as a Spielberg production.