‘Monster House’ open at Smith Opera House

The biggest surprise of “Monster House,” an animated and clever comedy from director Gil Kenan opening Friday at the Smith Opera House, is that it is honestly scary, in the way of those old-school haunted house films that had it both ways — when you’re laughing, no one notices that you are also seriously spooked. It’s a family movie that kids and their parents will both love, which means it avoids the homilies even though it delivers a real message: Stay away from that creepy-looking place down the street.As every kid and former kid knows, every neighborhood has a haunted house, and if it doesn’t, it just means someone lacks imagination. That’s decidedly not the case with DJ (the voice of Mitchel Musso), the sort of 12-year-old who has decided he’s too old for trick-or-treating but secretly regrets it. He has also convinced his pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) that there is something creepy in the ramshackle old house that stands out like, well, a ramshackle old house in their upscale suburban neighborhood.It’s home to a real creep, a skeletal old recluse named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) who has more dental issues than the pirates of the Caribbean and a huge collection of balls that have somehow found their way onto his front lawn.When the boys witness Nebbercracker confiscating and destroying the tricycle of an innocent little girl, DJ works up the courage to confront him, with even worse results than he might have imagined. The old man is rushed to the hospital with an apparently fatal heart attack. With DJ’s parents (Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard) away, he is left only with Chowder for comfort and support; his punked-out teenage babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is too preoccupied with her bad-news boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) to indulge him.Things change when Bones, as well as a pair of clueless cops (Kevin James and Nick Cannon), check out the house — but then fail to check out. DJ and Chowder, joined by know-it-all prep-schooler Jenny (Spencer Locke), have no choice but to get to the bottom of what’s going on in the house, which for all its deathly presence is beginning to look increasingly alive.While “Monster House” eschews the elegant storybook realism of “Polar Express” in favor of a funkier look, it has been created using the same motion-capture technology.Real actors were filmed while wearing magnetic markers that tracked their every movement; animators then drew over them in the computer to make the characters lifelike. The technique works brilliantly here, allowing the realistic-acting kids and the carnivorous house to interact creatively but not so believably that it becomes more frightening than comic.Still, there are enough true scares and enough underlying malevolence that parents should tread carefully. Very young children may spend more time cowering than chuckling.Meanwhile, 12-year-olds who no longer go trick-or-treating or watch cartoons are almost certain to embrace “Monster House,” whose script is full of hip humor.Like the books of Roald Dahl and the “Harry Potter” novels, “Monster House” does not condescend to kids, but respects their intelligence, and their ability to separate fantasy from reality.Which is not to say it doesn’t aspire to scare them silly.Just in time for Halloween, “Monster House” will be screened October 6-10 at 7 p.m., 2 p.m. on Sunday and Monday (special Columbus Day matinee). This film is rated PG and has a running time of one hour, 31 minutes. All seats for this special family film are just $3. Call 315-781-LIVE (5483) or toll-free 866-355-LIVE (5483) for details or to order tickets. Tickets may also be purchased on-line at www.TheSmith.org.

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