It's 30 minutes in before Monster House wakes up and realizes it's an animated film. That's when the house first starts Hulking out, and it's the first time the film does anything that couldn't have been rather easily accomplished by a live-action movie with a capable preteen kid cast. There's an instantly classic family movie buried just below the surface of Monster House. Unfortunately, this great script has been brought to the screen using trendy computer animation instead of more appropriate big-budget effects mixed with realism. This story is too good to be killed by animating. But while Monster House may not be the classic it could have been, as a family film it's still pretty damn good.
On Halloween Day, old man Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi), who's been terrorizing neighborhood kids for generations, keels over from a heart attack while engaging in a tirade against young DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) for stepping on his lawn. But Nebbercracker's death is only the beginning of DJ's bad day. Apparently, Nebbercracker's rickety old house doesn't take DJ's part in its owner's death well. In fact, Nebbercracker's house is alive and angry. With his parents out of town, DJ and his friends can only watch in horror as the house starts devouring neighborhood toys, pets, and eventually police officers who tread on its lawn.
Though much of the computer animation in Monster House is by today's standards somewhat sub-par, the house itself is stunning: a beautiful, nightmarish dream that looks like it might have fallen right out of the head of Tim Burton. It's a wonderfully alive, fiercely cinematic set piece, an effect so brilliantly conceived that a lesser film might have been content to rely upon merely the house's toothy appearance as justification for the entire film's existence.
That's not the case here. Monster House comes with a script every bit its set piece's equal. It's not just high concept, it's high content, too, with well-drawn kid characters facing realistic kid dilemmas, talking the way that kids actually talk. The kids' interaction is what carries the movie, as DJ and his buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner) joke about the possibility of impending puberty and consider for the first time that maybe they're into girls. It's right on par with a lot of other family fantasy classics, reminiscent of movies like Goonies or even E.T.. It has a fantastic, quick-witted pace to it that carries the story right along with or without that amazingly cool monster house set piece roaming around in it. It's not only the kids they've gotten right, but the ancillary adult characters as well. Nick Cannon does a hilarious job as the voice of a rookie cop investigating the children's claims of a man-eating domicile, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is the perfect disinterested babysitter.
This is a great fantasy story, the kind of movie kids dream about in their back yards, the kind of story that could, as Goonies did back in its day, fire up the imagination of younger viewers for years to come. Come on, you remember the first time you saw Goonies as a kid. Admit it: you rushed out and started drawing treasure maps, pretended your backyard was a big adventure with your friends, maybe even practiced the truffle shuffle. Monster House has exactly that same kind of potential, and comes close to being just that kind of movie.
Yet, a big part of the magic of a movie like Goonies or even E.T. was that it felt like you were watching real kids on a real adventure. By making Monster House a computer-animated story, it loses that. Still, whatever termites the movie might have, its foundation isn't damaged by them. Monster House is a creaking, groaning, good time.