Remember when you were a kid, and there was that mean, grumpy old guy who always yelled at you for running across his lawn? Or perhaps, in your neighborhood, you had one of those spooky houses -- the kind that always seemed, somehow, to be looking at you; the kind of house that you and your friends would cross the street to avoid walking near. In Monster House, the fantasically animated flick by fresh-out-of-film-school director Gil Kenan, those elements are combined to great effect: Old Man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) lives in the spookiest house in the neighborhood, a haunted house in the midst of suburban bliss, and he hates kids and their toys. If your ball lands on Old Man Nebbercracker's pristine yard, just forget about it, kid. Ride your shiny little trike across his grass? He'll take that trike and leave you crying on the sidewalk like the whiney little girl you are.

All of Nebbercracker's iniquitous deeds are not going unnoticed, however. On the case is DJ (Mitchel Musso, who pre-teen girls will know from his role as Oliver in Disney's Hannah Montana), a 12-year-old kid who lives across the street from Nebbercracker's House of Horrors. DJ spies on Nebbercracker through his telescope, making careful notes of his elderly neighbor's activities. When the story opens, it's the day before Halloween, and DJs best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) is trying to convince him they aren't too old to trick-or-treat this year. After all, it's free candy, and you're never too old for that. Meanwhile, DJs parents take off for an overnight trip, leaving him in the hands of his hipper-than-thou teenage babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

p>When Chowder's new basketball lands on Nebbercracker's lawn, Chowder wants it back. But when the boys try to get theball back, Old Man Nebbercracker comes out, huffing and puffing and ... collapsing right in front of them. The ambulance takes him away, and DJ and Chowder are left to face the possibility that they killed the old man. They quickly learn that it's not just Old Man Nebbercracker who had it out for the neighborhood kids, though -- the house itself is alive. Along comes Jenny (Spencer Locke), a pretty, efficient little scout going through the neighborhood selling cookies. DJ and Chowder try to warn Jenny about the house, but she scoffs at them, until the house -- that's right, the house -- tries to eat her.

From that point on, it's DJ, Chowder and Jenny versus the house, trying to convince the adults around them -- a couple of hapless police officers (Nick Cannon and Kevin James), Zee and Bones, her wannabe rock-star boyfriend (Jason Lee), that the HOUSE EATS PEOPLE. And tomorrow night is Halloween, the night when scores of kids will ring the doorbell in hopes of getting candy. DJ, Chowder and Jenny have to find a way to stop the house before it eats all the kids in the neighborhood, so they seek out the advice of the wisest person they know: Skull (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder), a pizza delivery guy who is revered by kids for his Zen-like mastery of a video game called "Thou Art Dead."

Following the lauded cinematic history of scary movies putting smart kids in peril while the adults around them refuse to listen, the story continues from there, with our heroes concocting a plan to extinguish the heart of the house (which they calculate must be the furnace) with their water guns. This plan, unfortunately, involves actually entering the monster house itself -- but with brave Jenny leading the way, how can the boys not follow?

Monster House is one of the best kids' flicks to come out of any studio in a long time. It's smart, it's funny, and it's voiced to absolute perfection by a cast of great character actors. From his brilliantly twisted vision of the house itself to the casting of the voice actors for this film, Kenan couldn't have done a better job for his frosh film effort. In fact, all the actors Kenan cast were the first names on his wish list; the appeal of his project was surely not hurt by the fact that it is exec-produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg -- a great windfall for the young director. Nonetheless, it was Kenan who had the vision for who should voice the characters, and his decision to go with great character actors rather than the biggest names out there was exactly the right thing to do.

And then their are the kids. The production notes position them as three unknowns, cast out of thousands who tried out for the parts, but really, all three are seasoned film and television vets -- and that experience shows. Kenan understood that for these roles it wasn't about just finding the perfect kid to voice each individual character, but that the three of them -- DJ, Chowder, and the best friends' mutual crush, Jenny -- had to play together as a single, perfect unit. Thank God Kenan didn't go the obvious route and cast child actress du jour, Dakota Fanning (not that she's not a good little actress, I just don't need to see her in every single film with a pre-teen female role) as Jenny. She would have outshone the boys, and that's not what was needed here.

I have to give some credit here to the screenwriters for an inventive story. Rob Shrab and Dan Harmon (who also have story credit) don't have resumes saturated with sugary kiddie fare (in fact, their next project is a Sarah Silverman pilot, so that should tell you something), and the third screenwriter, Pamela Pettler, was one of the writers on Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. The film was produced by Sony Pictures Animation, which has three other animated flicks in the works: Open Season (due out in September), Jon Favreau's Neanderthals and Surf's Up, about a penguin surfing championship. If these films come close to Monster House in terms of storyline, sharpness, and lack of sappiness, the Mouse House and Dreamworks better keep an eye out and stop producing so much regurgitated crap.

And then there's the monster house itself. Perhaps it's because Kenan is fresh out of film school and as yet untainted by the stench of Hollywood mediocrity, or perhaps he really is as good as the folks who signed him based on his 10-minute thesis film thought he was -- but this house as a character is nothing short of cinematic genius. There are writers and directors who just have that gift for "getting" it. Stephen King may not be a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary author, but he's been so successful for so long because he "gets" the things that scare the crap out of us and brings them to life with his stories. Spielberg, with E.T. (which will always have a special place in my heart), captured the childlike wonder and innocence of a boy meeting a space alien and making it his friend. Kenan, with Monster House, shows beyond a doubt that he "gets it" as well. He understands the way ordinary things can be scary, and he's imaginative enough to speculate that more might lie beneath the surface of those scary things than meets the eye. I'd be willing to bet that as a kid he had the biggest imagination in all his classes. He probably got in trouble for drawing cool pictures in his notebook when he was supposed to be writing haiku or doing long division; this film feels like years worth of repressed creativity coming out in one whoosh.

Kenan takes what looks like an ordinary spooky house, the kind you and your friends would have imagined all kinds of scary stuff about, and brings it to such life that it's ten times spookier than anything you ever dreamed up in your own head. He brings Monster House to life with a sense of childlike wonder, and belief in the unbelievable that so many directors these days -- especially of children's fare -- just don't have. I hope beyond hope that Kenan, as he grows and matures as a director, will manage to retain the freshness, enthusiasm and sense of wonder he brings to Monster House. If he does, well, we may have another director the likes of Spielberg or George Lucas on our hands. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

One minor word of warning: This film might be too scary for small children. I did bring three of my kids -- ages nine, six and almost-five -- to the screening (the Seattle International Film Festival scored it, and boy, were my kids thrilled to get to see Monster House a month before its theatrical release), and they all loved it and were fine (although the nine-year-old is still talking about how scary the house was). Kenan doesn't tone down the scariness of the house for younger kids -- which is exactly why the film works as well as it does -- and the final scenes of the kids battling the house are frightening and very intense.

So use your judgment before taking younger kids to the film. On the Scale of Scary, I'd put it up there with some of the more intense scenes from the last couple of Harry Potter films, so if your kids couldn't handle that, this may be one to buy on DVD and save for when they're a bit older. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it yourself, though. This is one of those rare kid films that's as, if not more, enjoyable for the adults as it is the kids. See it on the big screen, with a big tub of popcorn to munch on, and enjoy the ride.

categories Reviews, Cinematical