At first glance, the nostalgic vibe of the animated spook-comedy Monster House might just seem to be its look. The motion-capture computer CGI renders the characters in a style that looks vaguely like clay, or vintage Rankin-Bass stop-motion. The clothes, the cars, even the retro ’fro of a black cop all seem to belong in the 1970s. If it weren’t for the star-69 feature on the phones, you might guess that you were watching a period piece set in disco-era suburbia.
But Monster House recalls a simpler time in another way'a way that’s particularly pointed coming from a computer-animated feature. For the last decade or so, studios have been marketing animated fare to grade-school kids while gradually coarsening the content'one bodily function gag becomes two, with a little sexual innuendo thrown in for good measure. Now along comes a movie decidedly not made for the little’uns, with a sly subtext: Childhood is too short as it is without making an effort to shorten it.
That’s because the heroes of Monster House aren’t exactly kids, but they’re not exactly ready for adulthood. DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) and Chowder (Sam Lerner) are “tweens,” best pals occupying that cusp-of-puberty netherworld where they resent having babysitters but still want to go trick-or-treating. They’re old enough for both of them to be instantly smitten with the cute-but-savvy prep-school girl named Jenny (Spencer Locke) selling candy door-to-door, but young enough not to have a clue what to do about it. They want to be able to take on their own challenges'except when those challenges include the apparently haunted house across the street occupied by neighborhood crank Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi).
They’re also spilling over with personality, like everyone in the script by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler. DJ’s teenage babysitter Zee is voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal with a snap of wannabe-rebel attitude; her bad-boy boyfriend Bones gets the whiskey snarl of Jason Lee. Throw in a couple of patrol cops'a weary veteran (Kevin James) and his hair-trigger rookie partner (Nick Cannon)'and you’ve got a film with more funny, enjoyable characters than a dozen pre-fab tales of Happy Meal-ready anthropomorphic animals.
That’s because'just like Pixar at its finest'Monster House concerns itself most with a human touch, even as it’s telling a story of a supernatural tract house. With impressive storytelling efficiency, nearly every scene informs the awkwardness and frustrations of the middle-school years. When the friends can’t convince the police that the Nebbercracker house is eating people, it’s a reinforcement of their sense that they can’t be taken seriously until they’re “adultsâ€; a wonderful throwaway moment finds DJ’s dad (Fred Willard) unable to say “I love you” to his adolescent son. There’s so much warmth and humor to the young protagonists in their simpler moments that it’s almost a distraction when they have to become superheroes to save the neighborhood from a rampaging possessed dwelling.
They do, of course, get their heroic moments in an adventure that director Gil Kenan occasionally allows to get a little too loud and fast for its own good. But at least this furiously paced thriller'and make no mistake, it’s often a dark and scary piece of work'isn’t intended for the toddlers whose parents obliviously dragged them to a recent promotional screening and stocked their nightmare files for months. We’ve all been programmed to equate “animated” with “kid-friendly,” and the unfortunate irony of Monster House is that it may miss its audience entirely. Those 12-year-olds are already convinced that PG-rated movies are for babies, and so are “cartoons.” They’re the ones who could most use a smart, witty film that tells them its OK for them to postpone the responsibilities of maturity for a year or two, shoot some hoops in the driveway and collect candy on a cool fall night in suburbia.