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Monster House

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/27/06 20:07:29

"Get off my lawn!"
5 stars (Awesome)

“Monster House” is one of those rare, wonderful moviegoing surprises. It is a cartoon that treats its younger viewers with intelligence and respect. It invites its older viewers to thrill along without straining to deliver jokes “just for the parents.” It perfectly captures in every frame the spirit of Halloween - the magic and fears of youth, and the absolute joy in a good scare. This is the best Halloween movie since “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and the sharpest one that completely grasps the kids’ eye view of the holiday since “The Halloween Tree.” Prepare yourself for a truly magical experience.

The Monster House of the title is the home of Old Man Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi), a crank so mean he’ll steal a girl’s tricycle right out from under her if she dares step foot on his lawn. But it’s more than just that one house with the jerky owner; it’s also that one house in the neighborhood that scared the jeebers out of you. The house is dark, dingy, and… something worse.

When DJ (Mitchel Musso) is left with a loser babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the day before Halloween, it’s just another night in the life of a preteen old enough to take care of himself but not old enough for the parents to leave him on his own. He knows something’s up with Nebbercracker - his hobby is spying on the old fart - and the trouble begins when he’s stuck rescuing a basketball that’s rolled onto Nebbercracker’s forbidden yard. Things only get worse from there, most troubling of all being the fact that the house is very much alive indeed. With the help of best pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) and new friend Jenny (Spencer Locke), it’s up to DJ to put an end to the Monster House’s reign of terror.

The film, directed by first-timer Gil Kenan and written by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler, is unafraid to present its younger viewers with some particularly grown-up ideas - death is faced with a gentle but honest touch throughout - and it’s refreshing to see a movie made by people who understand that kids know a lot more about life than us adults think they do. It also understands that kids can handle horror stories, and so it’s unafraid to deliver some genuine frights. (Of course, these are kid-friendly frights, nothing troubling in the least, so concerned parents need not worry.) The filmmakers have found a comfortable level at which to talk to kids with this story. They seem to be telling them, “We know you like spooky stories, and we know you can handle it, so why not just have fun with all of this?”

The filmmakers also get a solid feel for the way kids truly behave in real life. Aside from being superbly designed pieces of animation that look and feel like real kids, they’re also created on the screenplay level to be completely natural. It’s strange, but a cartoon boy in a silly kids’ monster movie feels more authentic a character than many of Hollywood’s live action creations.

These are kids in that critical year of their lives where they have one last go at trick-or-treating before they’re too old for such things. “Monster House” finds the perfect balance, showing us characters that are too old to be children, too young to be teenagers. Their experiences, then, bring us back to an innocent time in all our lives, and the movie asks us to celebrate along on this one final Halloween adventure.

And an adventure it is. The film builds the scares slowly and steadily, until it at long last allows the trio to actually go inside the house, delivering top notch haunted house chills every step of the way. And then the story hits a breaking point, and it explodes with action that’s scary, funny, and exhilarating all at once. There are even welcome moments of legitimate sweetness here, too. Kenan and his crew have designed a carnival spook house thrill ride to match the best.

The important question, you grown-ups have been itching to ask, can now be answered: yes, “Monster House” is indeed on par with Pixar, that untouchable touchstone of CGI animation. Kenan has delivered one of the best cartoons in recent memory, one that’s accessible to all ages, one that delivers on every promised thrill and chill. This is dynamite filmmaking. I, for one, have discovered a new Halloween tradition.

A final note: “Monster House” is being shown in theaters in both a traditional format and a digital 3-D format. Either version is outstanding, to be sure, but if you have the chance, make an effort to see it in 3-D. Gone is the clunkiness of red and blue glasses, replaced by a new technology from a company called Real D; it’s very similar to the IMAX 3-D format and has its roots in the more effective “Polaroid” style (clear glasses, the way it should be!). The effect is jaw-dropping - even the wisps of smoke take on three dimensions. As a lifelong fan of 3-D who’s both enjoyed and suffered through the ups and downs of the technology, I have to admit that this is the finest of all 3-D formats yet, and it complements this excellent film with the greatest of ease.

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