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Friday, July 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Monster House": Just enough shivers, thrills

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Monster House," with the voices of Steve Buscemi, Nick Cannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kevin James, Jason Lee, Catherine O'Hara, Jon Heder, Kathleen Turner, Fred Willard, Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke. Directed by Gil Kenan, from a screenplay by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler. 90 minutes. Rated PG for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor and brief language. Several theaters.

Aimed at kids too young for teen movies but too old (or so they think) for anything rated G, "Monster House" is an enjoyable ride on a dark but not-quite-scary-enough-to-make-you-scream roller coaster, told in elegant motion-capture animation.

At its center are a trio of preteens anyone will recognize: 12-year-old DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), a gangly kid who lopes around like he doesn't know quite what to do with his ever-sprouting arms and legs; Chowder (Sam Lerner), his chunky, wisecracking best buddy; and Jenny (Spencer Locke), a smart, poised girl whom DJ and Chowder are trying to impress, but aren't sure how.

The three are brought together in battle against the house across the street, which stands as a stark contrast to the other cookie-cutter Colonials in their anonymous suburban neighborhood. Its windows are dark, its shingles are shedding, its front yard is bare and forbidding, and when annoyed, it sticks out its red Persian-rug tongue and swallows whatever dares traverse its walkway. This is not normal suburban behavior for a house, but as usual the kids can't get any grown-ups to do anything about it. So they hatch a plan on the day before Halloween, involving a lot of cough medicine, a vacuum cleaner and ... well, kids, I'm not going to give it away, but there's plenty of action in the third act.

Though made with precision and genuine affection for its kid characters (who sit precisely on the cusp of being almost too old for Halloween but wanting to trick-or-treat anyway), "Monster House" isn't going to appeal to a very wide audience. Small or sensitive children will likely find it too scary, though the animation acts as a distancing device. Some of what we see could be truly terrifying in live action but is darkly whimsical when animated. Adults looking for the humor and heart trademarked by Pixar movies may be disappointed; this isn't a family classic but a toned-down Saturday-matinee thrill ride.

But the voice performers are all top-notch, particularly Maggie Gyllenhaal as a slinky, punky babysitter — who finds the kids, like, totally annoying — and Jason Lee as her spacey boyfriend. And the animation is often a kick. Spindly DJ, with his toothpick limbs, would fit into any Tim Burton fantasy, and a few of the scenes involving golden-hued autumn leaves are surprisingly lovely. (You wonder why this film's release wasn't timed with Halloween.)

Director Gil Kenan keeps the pace zooming along nicely, and "Monster House" ends before you have time to get tired of it — like the best of carnival rides.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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