A bit of business upfront: I'm going to be whoring my filmmaking skills out to shoot what amounts to a corporate video tomorrow for several hours, so the odds are strong against my posting anything. I loves me some filthy lucre more than I love this blog, what can I say?

Yet another movie review, which will hopefully live up to the extremely nice priaise I've received for my recent output (and for the record, if any alt-weekly publishers are reading this, I am in fact looking for a chance to quit my job to live the glamourous life of a print journalist). A review for the most surprising films of the summer: Monster House, which I really expected to hate, but in fact did not end up hating at all.

I'd even argue that on a purely script-based level it's my favorite animated film of the year. The story reminds me in a way (blasphemy alert!) of the first Toy Story: it's a proudly unironic story about the world the way kids see it, fantastic without even the slightest genuflect towards cynicism or adulthood: in fact the viewpoint of sensible adults is deliberately rejected. This of course makes it infinitely more enjoyable for a sensible adult audience than the horde of snark-laden postmodern pop epics that litter the "children's movie" landscape.

The story concerns DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), a boy of around 12 or so (old enough to find girls attractive, too young to use "puberty" in a sentence correctly) and his friend Chowder (Sam Lerner), who accidentally instigate the apparent death of the angry old proprietor (Steve Buscemi) of the ugly old house across the street from DJ. Things happen as they will, and the house becomes possessed of a vengeful spirit that spends all of Halloween trying to eat the boys and Jenny (Spencer Locke), an overachieving prep-schooler and the object of a low-key rivalry between the male friends.

The film is quite sober about all of this. We are never given reason to doubt that the house is haunted, and while there's plenty of humor, it's strictly of the kind that's there to keep the scariness from getting out of PG-Land. Which is useful, because the film is scary indeed: enough so that a little girl, perhaps seven years old, had to be escorted out of my screening. But the rest of the young audience ate it up with a spoon. Monster House does not want to impress us with a barrage of cultural references, but by telling a great camp fire story, and it does this with admirable restraint and respect for the audience (the last of these is not merely a rare thing in a family movie, but a rare thing for an American movie, period).

Mostly what impressed me is how seriously the script treats childhood. DJ announces early on that he has become too much of a grown-up to go trick-or-treating; Jenny is introduced as a miniature executive. Yet by the end of the film, both characters have come to realize that rushing towards adulthood is nothing to be proud of, perhaps because the adults in the film (two inept policemen, DJ's nebulously twenty-something babsitter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) are utterly blind and it's only the kids' innocent eyes that allow them to see the house for what it is.

And the thing just looks great. It was made in the motion-capture style of The Polar Express, meaning that much of the camera work and acting was captured live with CGI added over it. And such CGI! The opening shot of the film is a high altitude shot of a leaf drifting onto a suburban street, and both the street and leaf have a photorealistic quality while still, somehow, mainting the abstract softness and beauty of animation. The house itself is a marvel, expressing real personality. Of course, most of us know that houses can look like faces, but never have I seen this presented so convincingly.

The executive producers are Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, and the camerawork bears traces of their rather similar styles: low angles make sure we know what to gawk at, wide shots let us take in the lovely design at our leisure. But director Gil Kenan doesn't just clone the work of his mentors. Copying only goes so far, and the frames are too perfect, the camera movement too fluid and graceful for this to be the work of a Shyamalan-style ripoff artist (or maybe Spielberg and Zemeckis just stole the film from Kenan like Spielberg did from Tobe Hooper in 1982). There's a rightness to the cinematography here that is sorely missing from most animated films, which are usually too-clearly made inside a computer.

But...and it's a great big but. The Polar Express is not chiefly noted for its visual loveliness, but for its horrifying character animation. And although Monster House is leaps better than that film, it's still got some really troublesome design. There's a concept called the "Uncanny Valley," that's well-known enough that I could probably get away without defining it, but here goes: as CGI animation of human beings approaches complete realism, they become more and more appealing to the audience, until a point just shy of total photorealistic reproduction, when they suddenly turn deeply grotesque and hideous. This is the Uncanny Valley: where such films as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within reside in perpetual shame. Pixar, still the greatest CGI animation studio of them all, neatly steps around the valley by stopping in front of it: clearly The Incredibles could be more realistic, but by leaving it cartoonish the animators were able to hit the twofer of being boldly stylized and appealingly cute.

In Monster House, the animators have been able to evade the stiffness of movement that torpedoed their earlier work. But the facial design - the most important part of animation - is simply not up to the rest of the film. Every one of the characters is disgusting too look at: their faces are stiff, their eyes have no depth, and their hair is solid, like they're all Ken dolls in disguise. It's a special tragedy because the teenaged voice actors do a surprisingly great job of bringing emotion to their performance, and watching those emotions come out of a plastic mask is the stuff of nightmares. I hesitate to say it took me out of the movie, because I was used to it by the end; but ideally, I shouldn't have spent the first 30 minutes feeling nauseated when I looked at the hero.

7/10 (the character design is quite the only reason it's not an 8)