Halloween approaches - it's tomorrow, in fact - and a tiny little girl races her tricycle through the autumn leaves, cheerily singing to herself when suddenly she stops abruptly. The trike is stuck on a lawn belonging to the notoriously cranky Mr Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) and he bumbles out roaring at the top of his voice that the girl should get off his property. She is so alarmed that she scampers away in tears, leaving the trike behind and horrified to see Nebbercracker spitefully yank off one of the wheels and taking it inside his house. This drama is being watched from across the street through a telescope by D.J. (Mitchel Musso), who has made it his hobby to take an appalled fascination in what his neighbour gets up to, and what with Halloween arriving tomorrow night, who knows what Nebbercracker has in store?
Here's a film that certainly lives up to its title, ostensibly aimed at children but can just as easily enjoyed by adults. Scripted by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab (who had earned cult credentials for the Heat Vision and Jack pilot) with Pamela Pettler (co-writer of Corpse Bride), Monster House has a crisp look thanks to computer animation and the notable way the actors have been incorporated into the action. It's basically a motion capture method where the cast had to wear special suits, and grids on their faces, all to record their movement and transform them into the characters of the story. Here it works like a charm, with convincingly human personalities combined with some bright rendering.
Essentially a horror movie for kids, rest assured the film opts for thrills and spills over more conventional scares and creepiness, as can be expected with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis in executive producer mode. But here there's more fun involved than either of those two gentlemen's family-friendly efforts of the 2000s (in a clever touch it's nostalgically set in the era of their eighties hits), and although the story is slim, it presents abundant imagination within those boundaries. Once we have established that Nebbercracker is the villain of the piece, it is further set up that D.J's parents are going away for a couple of days leaving him with goth babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who brings her obnoxious boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) along for the evening. As if D.J. didn't have enough on his mind, because earlier that day Nebbercracker was taken away by an ambulance - why? After stepping on his lawn to retrieve a stray basketball, D.J. provoked such a fury from Nebbercracker that the old man had a heart attack, that's why.
Now D.J. believes his neighbour dead, with himself to blame, but that's not his only worry as Nebbercracker's old, dark house seems to have called him on the phone. And when Bones wanders onto the lawn, captivated by the sight of a kite he lost to the old man as a child, he is promptly swallowed up by the building - D.J. realises that the the house is not haunted, no, it's actually alive. There's only one thing to do, and that's sneak out of his home and meet up with his best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) to draw up a plan of attack. There's a nice sense of the children in the film, including new recruit Jenny (Spencer Locke) who is almost eaten by the monster house, on the verge of growing up, but just young enough to accept the weirdness of their situation without question, simply wishing to solve the problems that have arisen. And the personalities, buoyed by an excellent cast, are distinctively created, from Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard as the parents to Jon Heder as the arcade game playing expert on all things supernatural; maybe not a classic, then, but the craftsmanship is marvellous.
[Sony's DVD has many special features, including an audio commentary, a lot of featurettes that make you appreciate the artistry involved, and trailers - although I couldn't find one for Monster House for some reason.]