For some reason, live-action films now aspire to be cartoons and cartoons aspire to be live-action films. And then there are those weird hybrids. (See my review of A Scanner Darkly, below.) Monster House, like last year's The Polar Express, started with live actors, who were required to wear special suits embedded with thousands of tiny reflectors. The performances were digitally recorded, then animators used the reflectors as reference points, constructing animated characters who would have the fluidity of motion that human characters have. Or so the theory goes. Myself, I found these characters to be a little marionette-like, but then there would come this moment where, like Pinocchio, they suddenly seemed realer than real. It's creepy.
And so is Monster House. Ostensibly for kids, it's a haunted-house movie in which the house itself is the monster, gobbling up anyone who happens to step past the property line, especially on Halloween. But the kid who lives across the street, a Harry Potterish youngster named DJ (Mitchel Musso), can't stay away. Along with his Ron-like sidekick, Chowder (Sam Lerner), and their new Hermione-esque friend, Jenny (Spencer Locke), he launches an assault on the old place armed only with Super Soakers. But first they have to get past the decrepit man who lives there, an Oscar the Grouch with bloodshot eyes and cadaverous skin played by Ã?' who else? Ã?' Steve Buscemi.
"Motion capture" more than proved its usefulness in Lord of the Rings and King Kong, where Andy Serkis gave captivating performances as a 90-pound weakling and an 8,000-pound gorilla. Here it's used to create characters who look like they've just stepped out of a children's storybook. The movie gains momentum, but loses focus, when the kids enter the morphing house. But before that it has a nice early-Spielberg flavor, thanks in part to a very kid-savvy script by Dan Harmon, Ron Schrab and Pamela Pettler. There's also some lovely artwork, like when the movie opens with a leaf drifting to the sidewalk, where a tyke on a trike runs over it on her way to wherever. Why this scary little movie isn't coming out in late October is beyond me.