'Monster House' is worth a visit

The scary movie for kids is beautifully rendered in motion-capture animation.

The new animated feature, "Monster House," has as its executive producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, but the real star is its first-time, 29-year-old director, Gil Kenan, whose last film was a $400 student short at UCLA film school.

"Monster House" extends the motion-capture animation technique, utilizing actors in wet suits acting on a sound stage, that was first employed by Zemeckis in his "Polar Express."

As "Polar Express" demonstrated, the resulting blend of live-action and computer-generated imagery has an otherworldly aspect that may not always be appropriate to the story. But for "Monster House," which is about a very cranky old man's suburban house that comes to life, the technique provides a perfect comingling of comedy and horror. The result has the visceral effect of a thrill ride at the amusement park.

Sometimes the thriller aspects get a bit out of hand. When 12-year-old DJ and his friend Chowder finally get the goods on Mr. Nebbercracker's house, it unmoors itself and rampages through the neighborhood. The movie temporarily turns into "King Kong."

But Kenan never loses sight of the wonderment that children (and adults) experience when the inanimate becomes animate. Anthropomorphism is basic to the art of animation. So is a good story, and Kenan has that, too, although one character, a black policeman, is uncomfortably close to racial caricature. The "cast" for the film, including Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Catherine O'Hara, and Fred Willard, is tiptop. If "Polar Express" put you off motion-capture animation, "Monster House" should put you back on. Grade: A–

Rated PG for scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor and brief language.

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