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'Monster House' is built just for kids

``Monster House," the new computer-generated family film about a possessed mansion, is like one of those gross-out children's novelty books -- the ones with the googly eyes -- and it attracts a certain kind of kid. Personal anecdote: I took the family to the screening, and when the lights came up my wife was shaking her aching head in dismay, the 11-year-old was opining that she found ``Howl's Moving Castle " a much more elegant treatment of similar material, and the 9-year-old -- she sat there grinning in low-down rapture.

There's your demographic sweet spot: ``Monster House" is the first horror comedy made exclusively for fourth-graders.

It takes place in one of those suspiciously underpopulated movie suburbs, lighted with the hard clarity of digital animation. Earnest young DJ (the voice of Mitchel Musso ) is obsessed with the decaying manse across the street, owned by cranky old Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi ) and alive in some witchy way. We know this: If a stray ball lands on the lawn or a tricycle accidentally turns up the walkway, the toy is sucked inside, never to be seen again.

Why don't the adults notice? Because movies like this demand grown-ups be clueless or nasty. DJ's mom and dad (clueless) go away for the Halloween weekend leaving him with babysitter Zee (nasty, and voiced as such by Maggie Gyllenhaal ) and her dim rocker boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee ). With porky best pal Chowder (Sam Lerner ) and Jenny (Spencer Locke ), a prep school girl passing through the neighborhood with a wagonful of Girl Scout cookies, DJ attempts to discover the secret of the Monster House. Which of course means going inside it.

``Monster House" is from the people who gave us ``The Polar Express " and it uses the same digital technology: characters' movements are ``traced" from the actions of wired-up live actors. Where ``Polar" tried to create photorealistic humans and wound up with soulless zombies, though, this one stays sensibly on the cartoon side of the ledger. DJ and his pals have appealingly oversize heads and pipe-stem bodies; it's as though the Sims had turned out en masse for the audition. (The one remaining creepy touch: No eyelashes.)

The script, too, has some agreeable elementary-school wit before it settles down to massive destruction. DJ and Chowder are poised at the lip of adolescence, and their attempts to woo Jenny are hapless in the extreme. Those comedy gains are offset by a grimness on the movie's edges -- Chowder's home life sounds downright dysfunctional -- and by a performance by Nick Cannon , playing a fraidy-cat local cop, that borders on feets-do-yo'-stuff embarrassment.

The movie goes bananas when the kids finally get in the house, and there are enough zooming camera shots and things flying at the audience that you know ``Monster House" will be playing in 3-D somewhere (and so it is, at Boston Common and various suburban theaters). The mansion has a personality as well as parts that correspond to a human body -- the chandelier over the staircase, it turns out, is a uvula . (``So it's a girl house," marvels Chowder . )

Down the heroes go to the heart in the basement, the house kicking and screaming all the way. I won't tell you what's down there other than to say it involves the voice of Kathleen Turner , and that may be the scariest thing of all.

Even at 87 minutes, ``Monster House" overstays its welcome. The finale is an overbearingly loud chaos of splintered boards and sentiment: Just the sort of funhouse ride to thrill a kid while Mom and Dad reach for the noise-canceling headphones. Is it too scary? Not really: Like an E10+ video-game, the film's crude jolts don't stick.

If you're wondering what business a Halloween movie has being released in the middle of July, by the way, rest assured the DVD will be inescapable come October. The home-video tail is no longer wagging the dog -- it is the dog. For its own part, the movie's a big, rambunctious mutt: Fine for a play date , but think twice before letting it into your own house.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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