- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

Today’s preteens will be tomorrow’s ticket buyers for “Saw 7: Severed Memories.” So consider “Monster House” a perverse public service, whetting the appetites of young audiences for future horrors to come.

This CGI “House” never gels into a bewitching story. And that’s a shame since there are plenty of elements here that could have made this a thrill ride for all ages.

Young DJ (voice of Michael Musso) and his pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) are obsessed with a cranky old-timer named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). He’s the kind of killjoy who keeps any toy, Frisbee or bicycle that accidentally lands on his property.

When DJ gets into a tussle with the old man one day over a stray basketball, Nebbercracker collapses from an apparent heart attack. But the trouble Nebbercracker brought upon the neighborhood is only beginning.

The man’s house comes to life in his absence, swallowing up a pair of cops (Kevin James, Nick Cannon) and a local goofball named Bones (Jason Lee).

It’s up to DJ, Chowder, and Jenny, the feisty new girl in town (Spencer Locke), to solve the mystery of the house before it eats them for dessert.

“Monster House” keeps one eye on its kiddie base and the other on its parents. The banter between DJ and Chowder ranges from annoying to inspired, but their crush on Jenny clearly is aimed at older sensibilities.

So, too, is DJ’s baby sitter, given fine comic voice by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She’s the typical distracted teen, but Miss Gyllenhaal somehow makes the performance fresh.

Speaking of performances, “Monster House” is built around performance-capture wizardry, where actors run through the motions wearing special gear, which lets computers track and mimic their movements.

The results should be the most realistic images possible, but somewhere along the way a bug sneaks into the works. The figures rarely feel as grounded as in other animated movies, and the children’s faces fare worse.

Animation can’t replace the nuances of the human face, but the boys and girls of “Monster House” look like they were injected with CGI Botox. Their faces seem lifeless, almost vacant at times. The exception is Chowder, an insecure teen with enough gumption to overcome these deficiencies.

The rest of the visuals carry the day, from the magnificent house to Nebbercracker himself. His face alone will give adults a start.

“Monster House” might be the stuff of nightmares for some, but as a creepy starter kit it’s missing a few pieces.

**1/2

TITLE: “Monster House”

RATING: PG (Frightening imagery, action violence, sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Gil Kenan. Written by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.sonypictures.com/movies/monsterhouse/site/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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