The fun part of being a kid -- although it may not seem so at the time -- is that you don't yet know everything there is about the world. Okay, many adults don't either, but at least they understand how it works as well as what's real and what's not.
But for kids -- I'm referring to younger ones -- ordinary everyday things can suddenly become monstrous, potential adventure lurks around every corner, and members of the opposite sex are intriguing but quite confusing beings that suddenly have turned the world of cooties on its ear.
Thus, when films manage to capture all of that and the unique sort of friendships that are rarely replicated in adult life, a certain amount of nostalgic magic is created. "Stand by Me" was one such film, and while "Monster House" isn't of the same caliber, falls into a different genre, and arrives with a decidedly different visual look, it's still a figurative and literal blast to watch.
The filmmakers -- director Gil Kenan, writers Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler, and producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg -- perfectly capture those aforementioned childhood qualities in this comedic "horror" offering that might just scare the pants off younger kids, but should entertain older ones and delight adults who remember those "back in the day" moments and feelings.
The highly engaging tale focuses on two male friends -- perfectly voiced by Mitchel Musso and Sam Lerner -- of slightly different maturity, as well as the universal themes of the haunted house, the cranky old neighbor everyone tries to avoid, and the effects that girls have on boys. Despite Kenan making his debut behind the camera, this one has Zemeckis' fingerprints all over it, ranging from the camera following a floating feather (a bit of homage to "Forrest Gump") through all of the action-oriented zaniness and its unique visual look.
Utilizing the same motion capture technique (where real performers serve as the templates for their computer-generated counterparts) that gave the kids ultra-realistic looking behavior in "The Polar Express," the cast and crew capture and recreate believable child characters. And while that look was somewhat creepy in "TPE" (where the characters looked like animated, but soulless dolls), it's a perfect fit for this sort of genre story.
The rest of the computer animation is top-notch as well, including more realistic looking camera movement than I've ever seen in a non-live action film (some lucky viewers will get to see it all in 3-D in a few theaters, alas we weren't among them). But all of that's just icing on this deliciously dark cake. Besides perfectly capturing various childhood mannerisms (especially the clumsy but exuberant awkwardness of Chowder), the film's story and approach in telling it are quite funny in a slightly subversive, black comedy light fashion.
The titular abode across the street is assuredly haunted, but the ways in which it goes about its business -- luring kids in with bait mostly stemming from long lost toys and such -- establishes the diabolical comedy style the film is going to exude.
And it's certainly a kids world where the adults are oblivious (Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard voicing the protagonist's parents), bumbling (Kevin James and Nick Cannon as the Keystone style cops) or scary mean (Steve Buscemi as the owner of haunted house as if related to Montgomery Burns without the "charm"), all of which is basically how many kids view anyone who's old or no longer going to school.
Even the older kids -- Maggie Gyllenhaal as the teen babysitter, Jason Lee as her Goth boyfriend and Jon Heder as a videogame junkie and source of wisdom for the plucky trio -- don't provide much support, thus leaving the kids -- with Spencer Locke voicing the more mature girl -- to their own devices. That eventually sends the film down a path leading away from dark comedy and more toward scary action-adventure. As a result, it loses a bit of its punch in the transition, although it's never boring.
The comedy does return toward the end when parents and kids will be assured that what appear to be deaths earlier in the film really aren't as everyone and everything makes it out alive. It would have been smart had the comedic tone been maintained throughout, but the filmmakers were intent on explaining the haunting, a point that leads to some mature, somber and even touching material that might take some viewers by surprise (and which gives the film some heart).
Zipping along at a brisk 90-some minutes, this is a very enjoyable, funny and at times exhilarating (probably to the point of being scary for younger kids) ride that should thrill and entertain both kids and adults alike, especially if the latter can recall what it was like to be the former.