Looking out his window, DJ (Mitchel Musso) sees a creepy-looking house
(Kathleen Turner). It's owned by Mr Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who
really doesn't people on his lawn. Toys that end up there disappear,
taken by Nebbercracker to discourage trespassing. DJ catalogues the
lost items, but his parents (Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) aren't
interested in his observations of the house. Just before Halloween, his
parents leave him home, in the care of babysitter Elizabeth (Maggie
Gyllenhaal), who prefers the nickname "Z". His friend "Chowder" (Sam
Lerner) visits, and joins his observation of the house. They spot Jenny
(Spencer Locke, who is a girl whose parents stuck her with a boy's
name) about to try to sell Halloween candy to Nebbercracker, and hurry
to talk her out of approaching the house. Before long, they discover
that Nebbercracker isn't the only thing that's creepy about the house.
The house, it seems, has a life of its own.
This movie started as a script that sat unproduced for years, for want
of technology and the right people to make it. The technology that went
into it turned out to be the same sort of animation as _The Polar
Express_, digital animation based on motion capture. Like _Polar_, it
has a stylized look rather than attempting photorealism, but instead of
taking the look of paintings in a book, it took the look of extremely
detailed dolls and doll accessories. But with motion capture driving
the movements of the characters, they end up with a lot of personality,
which overrides their stylized look. The animation is least effective
in the climax scene at the end, where it exaggerates the action just a
bit too far for my tastes, but even there it's pretty good. Most of the
time the animation is excellent, with just the right degree of
exaggeration to fit the stylized look. The sets are very good,
particularly a construction site near the house. I'd rate the animation
More important than the technology is the story. What really makes the
images on the screen interesting is the way they serve the story.
Comparing with _The Polar Express_ again highlights the point -- this
movie had a solid story, compared with _Polar_, which expanded a very
thin children's book into a feature-length story. This movie's story
isn't in a class with the best of Pixar, but the film-makers are
clearly aware of the fact that the strength of the story is very
important. I'd rate the story very good.
The voice and motion capture performances, shot in only 34 days, are
almost all excellent. My favorite was Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was
wonderful in her supporting part as babysitter "Z". The least
satisfying, I thought, was Jon Heder (as video-game master "Skull"),
and he was good, just not great. Even Kathleen Turner, as the house,
performed in the motion capture space, moving around in a neighborhood
constructed of foam. I really hope that the director wasn't joking when
he said he might include her motion capture video as a DVD extra. Nick
Cannon, as a rookie police officer, was probably the funniest
character, relative to his screen time.
Kathleen Turner's presence in the cast is a bit of a nod to executive
producer Robert Zemeckis, who cast her as Jessica Rabbit in _Who Framed
Roger Rabbit_. She was thrilled by the part, which gave her a grotesque
role to mirror her glamorous role as Jessica Rabbit. Other Zemeckis
references are more obvious. Most obvious one is in the opening,
featuring a leaf. Another deals with a basketball -- originally an
accident during production. Others may exist, but it's not packed with
pop culture references like the _Shrek_ movies.
Directing an animated film is different in a lot of ways from directing
live action, which makes it more complicated to rate. Directing this
movie involved directing both the motion capture performances and the
camera positioning. The director took the script, and made complete
storyboards from it. From those, he made an animatic, which guided the
way he directed the motion capture shoot. Because of the way character
interactions affected the results, he said that he ended up throwing
out all the storyboarding, but I'd guess he meant that figuratively.
The character interaction looked really good, better than almost any
animated movie I've seen. I'd rate the directing excellent, in a class
Overall, I'd rate the movie very good, mostly on the strength of the
story. Kids are usually easy to please, and they'll probably find the
movie excellent. Adults are harder to please. Where _Shrek_ emphasizes
pop culture references for adult appeal, this movie targets adults'
memories of childhood, effectively drawing adults into enjoying it like
the kids in the audience.
Credits: There are a few additional scenes after the credits begin.
Don't run out right away. Stick around at least until the fine-print
Personal appearances: The director, Gil Kenan, and a couple of the
producers (I don't know which ones, but not Spielberg or Zemeckis) were
there. The director took questions from the audience, and answered very
enthusiastically -- he seemed like he was thrilled to see his film in
front of a real audience, and not burned out from hearing the same
questions over and over. He was really nice to the kids in the
audience, and behaved like he was new to the experience of being the
center of attention. He signed lots of autographs (including one for
me), and seemed genuinely pleased that people cared enough to ask.
That's a reaction that one might expect for the director of something
obscure, but uncommonly nice for the director of a big-budget summer
The US rating is "PG", for some scary scenes and (supposedly) "crude
humor and brief language". The crude humor is minimal, compared to
typical movies aimed at kids. I can't think of any inappropriate