Monster House

Opens at Metro and others, Fri., July 21. Rated PG. 90 minutes.

At this point in the year, it seems a novelty to watch a CG-animated film where the animals don't talk, where the story is about kids in a relatively normal, Spielbergian suburb, where . . . giant monster houses threaten to eat any children who dare to cross the lawn. (So much for that theory.) But what's more normal than cursed real estate and the return of the repressed? And what trio of suburban kids, aged about 12, wouldn't like to investigate this paint-peeling, broken-windowed, plank-toothed menace? Particularly when their parents, conveniently absent, are completely oblivious to the threat? Especially when it's so obvious—the house eats people, it gobbles up dogs, it impounds any toy that bounces onto the property! Adults never understand anything.

Even better, so far as kids—and kids who've grown up to be film critics—are concerned, there aren't a lot of adult lessons here. Monster house needs destroying—there's your moral. In his debut feature, director Gil Kenan keeps things suitably simple. Our hero, D.J., has parents (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) who soon leave town for the Halloween weekend; he's inattentively tended by a teenage baby-sitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a few no-good buddies (Jason Lee and Jon Heder); and the monster house has a cranky old owner (Steve Buscemi), who looks like a Central European marionette with a shriveled-apple face amid the unwrinkled CG doll-head children. D.J. and his allies, chubby Chowder and brainy Jenny, only need to solve the mystery of the house like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew do. And then, of course, blow it up real good.

In some ways, House is an anti- Miyazaki movie, where genius loci spirits need exorcising, not befriending. The crisp foreground–softer background design gives a semi-3-D effect, kind of like Warner Bros. intruding on Studio Ghibli turf. It's a case of high technology communicating the same story once transmitted by two tin cans and a length of string. Nothing needs improving, but the update works just fine.

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