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Monster House

From the moment you see the old-school Amblin Entertainment logo before the credits, Monster House (2006) makes its intentions clear — it wants to wrap you in a thick, warm blanket of '80s nostalgia. It's a very specific subset of '80s nostalgia, mind you: Monster House very blatantly — and successfully — aims to re-capture the vibe of Steven Spielberg-produced fantasy/horror comedies set in suburbia. We're talking The Goonies and E.T. and every other episode of "Amazing Stories." (Stretch the definition a little and you could include non-Amblin imitators like The Lost Boys and The Monster Squad.) Given that list of titles, decide for yourself if Monster House (which is produced by Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis) sounds of a piece: We're in a (mostly) cozy suburban neighborhood in the '80s. The video games are of Atari 2600 vintage. It's Halloween. The parents are out of town. And three kids — a timid hero (Mitchel Musso), his big-boned pal (Sam Lerner), and the plucky prep-school girl they both covet (Spencer Locke) — discover that the house across the street is somehow alive… and hungry. Their babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a pair of comic-relief cops (Kevin James, Nick Cannon) don't believe them. (As one character puts it, "It's too much for the adult mind to comprehend!") And so, for the sake of the impending trick-or-treaters, our heroes must arm themselves with water guns, cough syrup, and their own courage, then dive into the (literal) belly of the beast. It all plays like a sort of unofficial Goonies sequel, as if Coreys Haim and Feldman are about to pop out from behind a tree. But Monster House is no museum piece. Director Gil Kenan and writers Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler milk this slight-sounding idea for far more well-earned comic suspense than you might expect. The house itself — with a porch for a mouth, a carpet for a tongue, and a chandelier for a uvula — is terrifying in that family-friendly way old Disney movies are terrifying, and the story packs a few genuine surprises too good to spoil here. The movie's also made using a technically elaborate "performance capture" process that looks like animation but actually involves actors running around in a small room with dots on their faces (or something like that) — but the story's setting is restricted to two houses, the street between them, and a nearby construction site, plus a lone foray into a pizza parlor. In a summer full of bloated, noisy, and otherwise indulgent blockbusters, that sort of storytelling discipline is almost shocking. And the animation-that-isn't-animation actually allows for subtler human expression than you might see in a few live-action films this summer. Sony's DVD release of Monster House features an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary with director Gil Kenan and additional crew members, the multi-part documentary "Inside Monster House," three stills galleries featuring "The Art of Monster House," "Evolution of a Scene: Eliza vs. Nebbercracker" with several composite steps, previews, and DVD-ROM content. Keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
Mike Russell

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