Some amusement-park rides (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Haunted Mansion”) become movies. “Monster House,” a mostly irresistible animated feature co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, seems designed to become a thrill ride.
As the title suggests, it’s about a hellish home that seems to have a permanent cloud hanging over it, ready to pour down disapproval and destruction. Everything else in the neighborhood has Suburban Yuppie written all over it, but the Monster House, with its intimidating “beware” sign, squats there like an unwelcome shipment from hell.
As the movie opens, it’s almost Halloween. DJ Walters, the 12-year-old kid who lives across the street from Monster House, wants to flush out the place’s owner, Nebbercracker, who appears to be responsible for the fact that tricycles, pop bottles, pets and toys (and possibly Mrs. Nebbercracker) are disappearing.
DJ’s candy-addicted pal, Chowder, loses his basketball to Nebbercracker, while their new friend, Jenny, is nearly sucked into the structure. The police, of course, don’t believe them, even when the house unmistakably roars to life.
Neither do DJ’s malevolent babysitter Liz (“I’m not your mother, I’m not your friend”) and her sadistic boyfriend Bones, who mercilessly mocks DJ’s possibly justified fears about getting “a phone call from beyond the grave.” For advice, DJ, Chowder and Jenny are forced to turn to a slacker chef, Skull, who spends more time playing video games than he does preparing pizzas.
Some very dark thoughts flit through these kids’ minds. At one point, DJ thinks he might have murdered Nebbercracker — or did he only commit manslaughter? Was he justified in getting rid of the neighborhood’s scariest peeping tom? When the kids do enter Nebbercracker's house, they find a pair of binoculars that are clearly set up for spying on them.
At the same time, they’re still clearly 12-year-old kids, facing what they regard as “lots and lots of puberty” in the years ahead. They’re confused about anatomy, sexuality and other mysteries. They’re equally certain about the dangers that threaten their neighborhood — and the need to take action.
Filmed in the same “performance capture” system that brought Gollum to life in “Lord of the Rings” and allowed Tom Hanks to take on several roles in Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express,” this 94-minute “cartoon” has a look that’s sometimes close to conventional cinematography. (Some theaters will project the film in a digital 3-D system.)
Maggie Gyllenhaal is instantly recognizable as the bad-news babysitter, making the most of her confrontations with DJ and Jenny. Steve Buscemi is also weirdly real as Nebbercracker, while the relatively inexperienced kids — Mitchel Musso as DJ, Spencer Locke as Jenny, Sam Lerner as Chowder — quickly establish their own restless chemistry.
The script was partly written by Pamela Pettler, who worked on Tim Burton’s kinky “Corpse Bride,” and it shows. The first-time director, Gil Kenan, is obviously exploring Burton territory here, yet he marks it with his own sense of invention.
Like so many mysteries, “Monster House” is most appealing when it’s not required to explain itself. The third act is bit of a disappointment, partly because it spells out everything, and partly because it errs on the side of mayhem. But as long as the kids are exercising their imaginations, it’s quite a ride.