Director Gil Kenan is a talent to watch, and his style of hyper-naturalistic computer-animated environments populated with just barely cartoony characters works better than the real-life/cartoon melds of the Scooby-Doo and Garfield movies. That he's applied this talent to a plodding and unimaginative screenplay by the geniuses behind the never-aired Fox pilot "Heat Vision and Jack" and an online comedy short called "LaserFart" is scarier and more bewildering than anything in the movie.

On the day before Halloween in small-town Mayville, 12-year-old DJ (voice of Mitchel Musto) and buddy Chowder (Sam Lerner) have what appears to be their final run-in with mean old Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), who lives in the rickety old place across the street from DJ. Nebbercracker reeeeeally hates kids and their tricycles, fallen kites, etc., being on his lawn, and one particularly nasty confrontation ticks off his ticker and gets him carted away on a stretcher. "No siren," Chowder notes as the paramedics languidly leave. "Never a good sign."

It's also not a good sign that signs ("No Trespassing," "Keep Out") sink mysteriously into the ground when an unsuspecting girl, Jenny (Spencer Locke), approaches the now-deserted house on her candy-sale fundraiser. DJ and Chowder try to warn her, but she just figures they're loony losers-until the suddenly anthropomorphic house tries to drag her inside with a long runner-carpet unfurled like a tongue. The only reason she makes it back to the sidewalk alive is that a grownup suddenly appears on the street, and the house just as suddenly becomes just a house.

That internal logic keeps changing, however. DJ's parents are away, and the house doesn't turn monstrous in front of his teenage babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But it does turn monstrous in front of her boyfriend, Bones (Jason Lee). It doesn't turn monstrous in front of the town's two cops (Kevin James, Nick Cannon)...until, in another scene, it does. Whatever. As well, the town is oddly deserted-no one in neighboring homes hears the roars, feels the ground shake, sees anything.

It's not in the kids' imagination: Bones, the cops and a dog all get gobbled by the monster manse. And since on Halloween there'll be kids aplenty becoming Good N Plenty for the voracious house, our three heroes must try to extinguish its furnace-heart.

At a screening with children, the youngest-mostly girls aged about five to seven-watched raptly but with little reaction. A 12-year-old control-group kid found the film too childish and left within 20 minutes. Still, the design and motion-capture animation (pioneered in executive producer Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express) are great, filled with such details as videogame graphics that subtly suggest the story takes place in the late 1980s or early '90s, to fit within apparent World War II vet Nebbercracker's lifetime. And the film begins with an autumn-leaf homage to Zemeckis' opening Forrest Gump feather-so photorealistic, you're momentarily unsure whether this animation opens with live action.

-Frank Lovece