Most kids’ flicks, especially the animated kind, tend to rely on overly sunny dispositions that can cause pancreatic damage in many adults. Even with a Halloween backdrop, this feature-length toon—in which a lad (Musso) deals with the spooky domicile across the street—initially suggests nothing more than a Fisher-Price My First Haunted-House Movie for the 12-and-under crowd. You can tell as the film gets under way, however, that something else is going on: Siouxsie and the Banshees substitute for Smash Mouth on the soundtrack, and the story centers on grieving and letting go, a largely verboten subject for children’s entertainment. This isn’t your parents’ animated movie, but it’s not necessarily your kids’ either, unless your offspring have been weaned on a steady diet of Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket and bedtime readings of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
The tonal difference allows director Gil Kenan to unveil his dark materials in a pleasantly gothy manner, though structurally, Monster House sticks to a conservative template. Once the boy and his misfit friends get to the bottom of things, the movie switches into roller-coaster mode, jacking up chase scenes and dutifully delivering the expected spectacular brouhaha. Peripheral characters like Gyllenhaal’s spiky baby-sitter and Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite retread don’t wear out their welcomes, but they’re also not very well used, one of several signs pointing to Kenan’s greenness. Still, there’s a refreshingly macabre edge to this family-friendly fare that sets it apart from the Disneyfied pack. (Opens Fri; Click here for venues.) — David Fear