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House Chills 

Let's play compare the movies. But let's limit the game to just two titles: Monster House and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. OK. Pirates has a cast-load of pirates, with names such as Davy Jones and Bootstrap Bill; Monster House has no pirates, but does feature two characters named Skull and Bones. The Pirates series was based on an amusement park ride; Monster House would make a great amusement park ride. Pirates, with its PG-13 rating, is a funny, adventurous film for all ages; Monster House, with only a PG rating, is also a funny, adventurous film for all ages -- except for anyone 5 and younger, who would likely be traumatized by some mighty scary sequences.

Keeping that in mind, parents, grandparents, other adults, teens and of course those around 6 and older, should be looking forward to this marvelously realized, computer-animated film.

It's the day before Halloween in a contemporary suburban setting. Young DJ (voice of Mitchell Musso) is staying home while Mom and Dad take off for a couple of days. And that's fine with DJ, because it will give him uninterrupted time to gaze through his telescope at the mysterious and creepy old house across the street, in which lives the creepy old Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). The guy is also quite nasty, as is shown when he grabs a tricycle from a neighborhood kid who has dared to "trespass," and grabs a basketball from DJ's pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) when it accidentally hits his lawn.

A confrontation between Nebbercracker and the boys leads to a heart attack (or something like it), and he's taken away, leaving the house empty. But wait, did that shutter just move? Is there something going on with the lawn? Was Nebbercracker the cause of what DJ and Chowder believe is an air of evil, or is it actually the house?

But there's no time to think much about this, because DJ's folks have arranged for their regular babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to move in for a night. But the pushy, foul-tempered metal-head doesn't want to deal with DJ; she just wants to have a good time when her beer-loving boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee), with about the worst teeth ever seen in an animated film, comes over.

Although he, too, wants nothing to do with DJ, they have something in common. Years earlier, when he was about DJ's age, he lost a kite to Nebbercracker when it strayed too close to his house. And hey, wasn't that right around Halloween?

Upon the addition of a third young character, Jenny (Spencer Locke) -- a self-assured honors student and scheming young future businesswoman -- Monster House becomes a story of friendship forged out of adversity. The kids all know that something is very wrong at that house, and they intuitively realize that they'd better get to the bottom of it before the first trick-or-treaters arrive in the neighborhood later that night.

The script's comedy is a constant -- from showing that Chowder is not as fearless as he pretends to be, to the informal competition between Chowder and DJ to impress Jenny (who's oblivious to it all), to the almost cliched presentation of two small-town cops who would rather be eating than listening to the kids' warnings about the house. A short bit features local video game expert Skull (Jon Heder) teaching our heroes how to combat the house.

Under the executive producing eyes of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, first-time director Gil Kenan -- and relative newcomer screenwriters Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, along with Pamela Pettler, who co-wrote Corpse Bride -- have put together a complex tale that encompasses heart-pounding scariness, out-and-out wackiness, lots of action and even a side helping of romance.

Camera movement is almost relentless, as are generous helpings of wild point-of-view angles, and a motif involving great use of reflections in glass.

There's also a very cool stylized look to the animation. It was shot via the motion-capture technique that Zemeckis used in The Polar Express, whereby actors were filmed live while wearing special suits that transferred their performances to a battery of computers for visual rejiggering. Though the process failed in The Polar Express, leaving its characters with a sort of unworldly look, here there's no attempt to make them real; they resemble live-action cartoons, but with very expressive faces and near-perfect body movements. They're much more fun to watch.

And the movie is fun all the way, though it gets even scarier near the end when the house becomes more than just a static malevolent character. Yet the filmmakers manage to pull off a happy, upbeat ending that requires viewers to stay seated when the credits roll.

Monster House; Rated: PG; Directed by Gil Kenan; Starring the voices of Jason Lee, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Buscemi

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