MOVIE REVIEW- Out of season: 'Monster House' months too early

The idea of new animated features opening three weeks in a row sounds like three studios made a suicide pact, or Hallmark declared National Animation Month so they could sell cards for it– until you consider the deadline is nearing to release movies and still be able to get the DVDs out for the lucrative Christmas season. That they're virtually writing off a big chunk of potential theatrical income shows where the real money is these days.

First out of the gate is Monster House. (The Ant Bully is next, followed by Barnyard.)  It's aimed at a youngish crowd– I'm guessing 7-13 year-olds will be the most appreciative, though parents of those on the younger end may have to explain the puberty jokes.

The worst thing about the timing of the release is that, unless they really rush the DVD out, Monster House won't be available for viewing at the most appropriate time: Halloween season.

This ghost story takes place on Halloween and the day before (which is technically All Hallows Eve Eve). DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) maintains surveillance on the haunted-looking house across the street. It belongs to Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), a "crochety old dude" rumored to have eaten his wife (Kathleen Turner). He's the typical old fart who chases kids off his lawn, but with a difference: some of the people and objects that light on his property are never seen again.

DJ's parents (Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard) go out of town for a couple of days leaving DJ with a sitter, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a punkette who prefers to be called Zee.

Convinced the house across the street is evil, DJ summons his best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner). Later they get additional help from Jenny (Spencer Locke), a preppy candy pusher both boys develop a crush on. (DJ is "having lots and lots of puberty.") Zee also winds up in a triangle when she loses interest in her old boyfriend, Bones (Jason Lee). He's in a band and meets Skull (Jon Heder), a gamer.

Rounding out the cast are a couple of inept cops (Nick Cannon, Kevin James). Well, have you ever seen ept cops in a comedy? With such hoary plot elements they might have called it Hoar House instead of Monster House.

The house's shtick is somewhat limited. There's the doorway that expands into a giant, jagged mouth with a tongue of carpet that sticks out toward the street, sucking in unwary trespassers. Inside a section of the floor in the entrance hall collapses and comes together again. On the lawn, prehensile grass grabs feet and things. That's pretty scary stuff, too intense for very young children; but by the 20th time these things happen, even the youngest mouths will be opening in a yawn, not a scream.

DJ says the situation is "too much for the adult mind to comprehend," but it really isn't.

Like The Polar Express Monster House uses the motion-capture process. It's not bad, but when computers can create so many textures so realistically, why do they make human flesh look so plastic?

There's a certain amount of artistry involved, but Monster House is obviously the work of business-minded people who think in terms of multimedia. It may not have the makings of a Broadway musical, but there's definitely a videogame in it, and the potential exists for a theme park ride. When that kind of thinking prevails, the movie is bound to suffer.