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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Monster House

Monster House is a monstrously good time. I went into the theater at the Essex Cinemas this last weekend cautiously, half-expecting to be pummeled to death by six year olds out of their minds in a sugar frenzy from pumping too many Skittles before the feature even began. Adorable Heather, one of the Concession Queens of the Cinema, calmed me with her always-welcoming smile, then practically threw me like a piece of raw meat into the theater and slammed the door shut, manically laughing with glee now that she had me trapped. Ignoring current fire laws, she slid a steel bolt closed behind me, leaving me surrounded by hundreds of zombiefied children, all calling out one word in unison… “Brains!”

Okay, okay. So it didn’t actually happen exactly just like that, but if real life was produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, the men behind Monster House, it might well have.
Zemeckis is a twisted little boy in a grown man’s body, responsible for giving the world television’s “Tales from the Crypt” and such big screen fright-fests as Bordello of Blood, House of Wax, and Thir13een Ghosts. Spielberg, of course, is the idealistic little boy in a grown man’s body who produced E.T. , Shrek, and the tv hit “Pinky & the Brain” so he has a sense of what kids crave. Together, they mix like a terrorist’s dream and have created a powder keg of laughs in Monster House. And lest you think it is only for the kiddies, let me assure you that in the showing I attended there were far more adults on hand than children, and the chortling in the audience was decidedly post-adolescent even if the heroes of the tale are anything but.

Monster House’s protagonists are budding teenager DJ (Disney teen actor Mitchel Musso) and his best friend Chowder (who I suspect carries the surname ‘Head’ even if we are never told), who are in agony at having to answer to the temporary rule of ‘Zee’, aka Elizabeth (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhall; Secretary), the babysitter who is staying overnight at DJ’s house while his parents are away. Zee’s commitment to her duties should be only half as strong as her interest in her boyfriend Bones (“My Name is Earl’’s Jason Lee), a dim-witted loser whose only reason for visiting DJ’s house is to use it as a place to drink beer and make-out with Zee. As a matter of fact, it may be his only reason for going anywhere.

Earlier that same afternoon DJ had quite a traumatic run-in
with his cranky old neighbor from across the street when he attempted to retrieve Chowder’s basketball from the old man’s lawn. Cantankerous Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi; Big Fish) railed at him first from the porch and then chased him around the yard, screaming threats and reminding the boy that he was never ever under any circumstances to ever, at any time and for any reason, set foot on the old man’s property. And then he promptly keeled over of a heart attack on top of young DJ.

Now in the darkness of the night, Mr. Nebbercracker’s dilapidated old mansion looks even more
threatening than he did. Strange occurrences seem to be happenings from across the way, and Chowder (Sam Lerner; Envy) is quick to blame them on Nebbercracker’s ghost, back to haunt poor DJ for having killed him earlier in the day. What a best friend!

While the older teens occupy themselves with more hormonal activities on the couch downstairs, DJ and Chowder sneak out and begin an overnight adventure that will ultimately take them, along with new-found friend Jenny (Spencer Locke of tv’s “Phil of the Future”), into the heart of the house itself. Creepy! Spooky! And rip-roaring good fun!

Of course by the time the younger members of
the audience (and us older folk with weak bladders) need changing all will be resolved happily with the horror of the Monster House finally expelled. Mr. Nebbercracker will be absolved of all his cranky behavior, the loving parents will have returned home, and the world will be set right once more, but, like a ride on Space Mountain, the memory will live on for another day.

Amazingly, this is director Gil Kenan’s first feature, and he does a splendid job utilizing the same complicated animation techniques used on last year’s The Polar Express. The realistic animation of the characters, called ‘capture motion’, brings a more lifelike sense of risk in what we perceive to be the kids’ danger, despite their obviously exaggerated features. Kenan’s voice casting is also superb as he has hired real teens to voice the main characters and they bring a timbre of pubescent reality that adults can seldom achieve when pretending to be kids. In kids, it’s a sound of adolescent yearning. In adults, it’s just plain whining. Or is it the other way around? Either way, it just works better with kids playing kids.

Monster House may be too intense for the wee ones under seven or eight. I’m a whole lot closer to eighty than eight (dammit!) and even I jumped a few times at some of the scares inside the house, but those who liked The Goonies growing up or savor the fun house ride at the Fair every August, then this may be the movie for you. The only thing scarier at the Essex Cinemas (or on celluloid anywhere for that matter right now) just might be Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, but she’s not nearly as colorful or as animated.

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