Dir: Gil Kenan. USA. 2006.89mins.

Seemingly every neighbourhoodhas a house or two whose spooky reputation derives either from an owner neverglimpsed or else an atmosphere unnervingly caustic and weird. The animatedmovie Monster House takes this impressionto the extrapolated extreme in a slick, wholly rousing family adventure aboutthree pre-teens banding together to battle a living, breathing haunted abode.

Commercialtheatrical prospects should be robust both domestically and abroad, as Monster House easily differentiatesitself both in tone and subject from the recent onslaught of talking animalanimated product. While opening Stateside on the crowded July 21 weekend, thefilm's broadness of appeal should give it a leg up at the box office. Positiveword-of-mouth could help it dent less distinctive competition during the subsequentfortnight: Warner Bros' The Ant Bullyand Paramount's Barnyard.

What Monster House has going for it most is afinely balanced sense of buoyancy and authentic chills, allowing youngerchildren to respond to its foreboding and intermittent menace in a genuine way.Teens meanwhile will chiefly enjoy its lively patter and spunky asides; gratefuladults will be delighted find a film their entire family can agree upon.

As his parentsprepare to leave for an out-of-town professional conference on the eve ofHalloween, 12-year-old DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) spies his spindly, frightening neighbour,old man Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi), snatch a tricycle away from a little girl whoaccidentally disturbs his lawn. When DJ's chubby pal Chowder (voiced by SamLerner) loses his basketball across the street, DJ tries to retrieve it,leading to a confrontation in which Nebbercrackersuffers a heart attack.

DJ fears he'sresponsible for Nebbercracker's death. His concernsaren't assuaged when the house starts taking on the characteristics of avengeful loved one, striking out and taking punitive action, includingswallowing up the skateboarding boyfriend of DJ's sneering babysitter, Zee(voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal).

DJ and Chowderset up an all-night stakeout. The next day, Jenny (voiced by Spencer Locke), amannered prep school girl selling candy door-to-door, happens by, and a briefand amusing romantic rivalry gives way to a collaboration in which the triohatch a quick plan to lull the house to sleep ' a humorous bit involving adummy crudely fashioned out of a vacuum cleaner filled with bottles of coughsyrup ' and infiltrate it.

They at firstfail, waylaid by a pair of bumbling cops (voiced by Kevin James and NickCannon), but as the house comes to life and goes on a rampage, DJ, Chowder andJenny uncover secrets about both Nebbercracker andhis relationship to the home.

The film's characterisations are somewhat standard issue, but won'tseem so to younger audiences, so crisply drawn are they and studded with idiosyncraticdetails and an array of consistently funny lines. For the most part this meanssuperficial banter, but a few exchanges are slipped in especially for olderteens and adults. On one occasion Jenny points out inside the domicile: "Ifthose are the teeth and that's the tongue, then that must be the uvula," towhich Chowder responds: "Oh, so it's a girl house."

It also certainlyhelps that, unlike many animated films cast with big-name adult actors in kidsroles, the voice cast here are more or less age appropriate. The three voiceleads evince a real rapport together, only increasing the jointly palpablesenses of playfulness and tension on display.

Douglas Pipe'slively score won't win points for subtlety and is at times a bit overwrought,but for the most part it neatly feeds into the propulsive pace. Only late inthe film, when the house uproots itself and a big action sequence ensues, dothings feel overstretched.

In surrenderingattempts at photorealism, Monster Housedeflects some of the criticism directed at Robert Zemeckis'The Polar Express, which pioneeredthe same motion-capture technique used here. The coloursin Monster House are crisper and lessrooted in atmospherics, and first-time director Gil Kenan' who came to the attention of executive producer Robert Zemeckisand others courtesy of an undergraduate animated short ' expertly establishesthe spatial relationships within the movie's small neighborhood and uses avariety of low-angle and deep focus shots more traditionally employed in liveaction. That adult sensibility serves as nice ballast for the kid-trendingstory, and the result is a film that plays legitimately and pleasingly to broadaudiences of almost any age.

Sony Pictures Imageworks
Amblin Entertainment

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International distribution
Sony PRI

Jason Clark
Steven Spielberg
Robert Zemeckis

Jack Rapke
Steve Starkey

Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler
based on a story by Harmon & Schrab

Paul C Babin
Xavier Perez Grobet

Production design
Ed Verreaux

Visual effectsart direction
Michael Scheffe
George Suhayda

Fabienne Rawley
Adam Scott

Douglas Pipes

Voice cast
Mitchel Musso
Sam Lerner
Spencer Locke
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Steve Buscemi

Jon Heder
Jason Lee

Kevin James
Nick Cannon
Catherine O'Hara
Fred Willard
Kathleen Turner