One of Steven Spielberg's most enduring contributions to film is the mood of suburban-uncanny developed in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. Stuck in the middle of suburbia—like much of America—these films' heroes suddenly discover that extraordinary events can descend upon even the sleepiest cul-de-sacs. Spielberg developed a sideline producing other filmmakers' variations on this theme in the '80s, some dark (Poltergeist, Gremlins), some warm (The Goonies, Back To The Future). And apart from its pioneering animation, Monster House, which Spielberg co-executive-produced with Back To The Future's Robert Zemeckis, could be a lost product of that era.

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In a nameless suburb, next to well-mown lawns and houses with much nicer paint jobs, sits a ramshackle dwelling occupied by an old man (voiced by Steve Buscemi) with a habit of scaring off anyone who sets foot on his lawn—even, as in the opening sequence, adorable little girls on tricycles. Across the street, an observant kid (voiced by Mitchel Musso) keeps a careful log of such occurrences, but nothing he's seen can prepare him for the weird way the house takes on a life of its own when an ambulance carries Buscemi away during a weekend when Musso is left with a none-too-attentive babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Monster House uses some of the same motion-capture computer-animation techniques employed in Polar Express, but in spite of its horror-movie trappings, it's much less terrifying, since it replaces Polar's almost-but-not-quite-right simulation of flesh with a cartoonier look. More importantly, director Gil Kenan has a feel for dizzying "camera" work, and the screenplay (by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler) combines witty gags with a sweet, albeit familiar, suggestion that kids shouldn't be in any great hurry to be anything but kids. Maybe that's because then all those boring suburban corners start to look boring and suburban again, and you have to grow up and make movies to bring the magic back.