Monster House

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The first thing you’ll have to get past in “Monster House” is the fact that it’s an animated film aimed at kids but it’s not a comedy. You’ll think it’s going to be one from the trailers and commercials, and it does have some jokes in it. But “Jaws” has some jokes in it, too, and no one’s calling that a comedy.

No, “Monster House” is more or less a straight-up scary movie, the junior version of those glib horror flicks where the heroes make wisecracks even in the face of terror. The problem here is that the lightness of the wisecracks keeps the terror from being very frightening, and the lameness of the wisecracks keeps them from being very funny.

Set in sunny suburbia, the film’s hero is DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso), about 12 and obsessed with the “haunted house” across the street. Every neighborhood has one of these: the creaky old two-story occupied by a reclusive old man rumored to be some sort of devil. If your ball lands on his lawn, you leave it.

This house’s crotchety old occupant is Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). After he is rushed to the hospital for an apparent heart attack, DJ and his buttery friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) — blessed with the departure of DJ’s parents and an inattentive teenage babysitter (Maggie Gyllanhaal) — set out to fully investigate and record the strange doings of the house.

For it seems this house is a living entity. It rolls out its entryway carpet like a tongue, moves its porch like a mouth, and scrunches up its second-story windows like eyes. DJ and Chowder, joined by a pretty neighbor girl named Jenny (Spencer Locke), whom they both flirt with, even witness the house devouring someone. And today is Halloween! Dozens of kids will be walking up the front steps and ringing the doorbell, the last thing you want to do to a hungry, angry house.

Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis are the executive producers, and the film aims for the kind of giggly thrills that some of their films have provided. But first-time director Gil Kenan and the trio of credited writers have mustered a film that merely passes the time. Apart from an adventurous, exciting finale and a few small chuckles and mild thrills throughout, the movie is nothing special. Had it been released at Halloween (where it surely belongs), you might count it as marginal seasonal fun. In the middle of summer, though, it barely registers.

C+ (1 hr., 31 min.; PG, scattered mild vulgarity (pee, crap, etc.), scariness -- probably not good for kids under 7.)

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