Some sharp talent and technique has been applied to an old chestnut of a story in “Monster House,” an increasingly resistable thrill-ride-style comic horrorfest. Godfathered by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, supremely slick but overly in-your-face first feature by recent UCLA grad Gil Kenan reps the latest in the motion-capture animation process popularized by Zemeckis in “The Polar Express.” Constant shock cuts and souped-up music and sound effects will keep small fry in a state of moderate petrification, while the trio of tweeny leads plus attitude-redolent cohorts will make teens feel welcome, spelling peppy summer B.O. returns for this Halloween-set haunted-house tale.
Kenan came to industry attention via his 2002 UCLA senior year short “The Lark,” a live-action/animated horror fantasy that evinced a mindset well suited to Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler’s script (originally written for a live-action feature) about a mean-spirited house that’s actually alive.
Helmer shows off his visual aptitude in the opening shot, which follows a red autumn leaf as it falls toward the ground in a pristine suburban neighborhood — pristine, that is, save for an old dark house, flanked by rows of barren trees, that no one dares approach. Its fearsome owner is Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), a skinny, dentally deprived hermit who, in the first scene, terrorizes a little girl and destroys her tricycle.
All this is observed from across the street by DJ (Mitchel Musso), a lanky 12-year-old who, with his chubby buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner), decides to challenge the eccentric old man. In the resulting altercation, Nebbercracker suffers an apparently fatal seizure and is carted away.
But that’s just the beginning of the threat posed by the house. When trespassed upon, the place reacts in a variety of antisocial ways: The lawn can suck things underground, and the facade takes on an unnaturally human visage, with two upper windows as eyes, a peak above the porch roof as a nose and the front door as a mouth, out of which rolls a lengthy tongue-like carpet with frog-like snatching ability.
Some relatively deserving characters fall prey to the house’s voracious appetite, beginning with Bones (Jason Lee), the amusingly odious b.f. of DJ’s punky babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and a couple of cops (Kevin James, Nick Cannon) who, in classic Abbott and Costello mode, refuse for the longest time to believe what everyone else knows the house is doing.
Alert “Harry Potter” fans will notice the script shamelessly lifts the prime personality traits of J.K. Rowling’s three most important young characters for its lead trio: Tall, dark-haired, serious-minded DJ is Harry, semi-dufus Chowder is Ron and their new cohort, smarty-pants prep school redhead Jenny (Spencer Locke), is Hermione. Together, they lay siege to the house, penetrating its deepest secrets, including the reason it can assume “human” and, ultimately, mobile form.
After shooting with live actors for 42 days in a “black box” soundstage to achieve credible movements and expressions, filmmakers then computer-animated both the environments and the thesps to give the picture its distinctive look. Characters are generally more facially nuanced than were those in “The Polar Express,” an asset amplified by the overall excellent vocal work by a tasty ensemble of performers that also includes Kathleen Turner, Jon Heder, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard. Pic’s technical and design achievement is estimable.
But the overriding impression is assaultive to a progressively off-putting degree. Kenan keeps hammering away with stun-gun cuts, visual ammo suddenly flying in from out of frame and ear-splitting sound effects and music cues, to the point where at least part of the audience will want to tune out. In this respect, it is a theme-park ride, with shocks and jolts provided with reliable regularity. Across 90 minutes, however, the experience is desensitizing and dispiriting and far too insistent.
Quite a few shots look specifically composed for maximum effectiveness in 3-D, a process in which the pic will be shown in numerous situations.