The story is the key to the movie, and it's very good.8/10
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 very good.
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 with Pixar.
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 credits roll.
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 movie.
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 language.