Monster House opens in theatres today.
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard
Director: Gil Kenan
** (out of five)
The good news about Monster House is that the motion-capture technology used to create its elaborate, CGI world — first employed by Robert Zemeckis on The Polar Express — has been refined to the point where digitally rendered characters no longer walk around with the cold-eyed, creepy stare of the dead. Instead, their eyes are bright and alive, set in faces that are slight caricatures of human beings — exaggerated features, spindly limbs, distinctive walks.
Monster House is a movie firmly in the kids’-own-adventure tradition of The Goonies, with plucky pre-teen heroes facing off against an outsized menace — in this case, the spooky old dwelling across the road, which obsessive young DJ is convinced has become possessed by the spirit of the creepy old man he may or may not have accidentally killed.
The stage is set for DJ and his plucky buddy Chowder — and, after a while, a girl from another neighbourhood selling cookies for her school — to tackle the spook show head-on, and that’s more or less what happens. Director Gil Kenan throws one thing after another at his virtual camera (literally; Monster House is going to play a lot better in its 3-D engagements) and keeps coming up with new ways for the house to be scary.
It’s all appropriately frantic, but the artificial nature of the motion-capture process has a weird way of undermining the fun: You’re always aware the characters aren’t quite interacting with the backgrounds, and the decision to hold back the show-stopping imagery until halfway into the picture makes one wonder why this couldn’t have been shot with live actors on digitally enhanced sets.
Fold in an undercooked script that feels like a puffed-out adaptation of a children’s book that never existed in the first place, and Monster House feels like a mutant conjured into existence to prove a point, rather than to entertain.