More stylized than The Polar Express but still too waxy for its own good, Monster House, like its predecessor, utilizes state-of-the-art motion-capture animation to replicate the slowness of actual human movement, with some bonus awkwardness introduced during the translation. After all, why decide between live-action and animation when technology allows for an expensive waffle?
Once you get over the puzzling stabs at naturalism, though, Monster House is fun on its chosen level: a hybrid of Tim Burton and Home Alone. One of the screenplay’s best decisions perches the three young protagonists right on the brink of adolescence; as the two boys and a girl — vaguely and pleasantly biting the Harry Potter dynamic — investigate a heavily haunted house, they have to face not just supernatural terror but an array of hostile, disbelieving adults and older teens.
The film demonstrates knowledge of both its subject and its audience with an affectionate portrayal of 12 year olds smart enough to make elaborate plans and young enough to actually carry them out. Monster House itself occupies a similarly tween-ish space, flaunting a sensibility that’s not quite adult, but more clever than a pure kiddie show.
Though the virtual set decoration outshines the character animation, the voice-casting has blessedly more in common with Pixar (role-perfect B-listers) than DreamWorks (stunt-cast A-listers), with especially vivid work from Maggie Gyllenhaal as a bratty punk babysitter and Jon Heder, in his one excellent scene as a nerd guru. The newcomer kids are good, too; the whole thing is sort of a peace accord between an amped-up Hollywood production and a homespun celebration of childhood.
Opens July 21