103 min., rated PG.
In the 1990s, R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" book series (as well as the GB-7-rated TV series) was aimed at young adults with an interest in anything creepy and fantastical. Now, in a time where horror movies for kids only seem to be animated, like 2012's trifecta of "Hotel Transylvania," "ParaNorman," and "Frankenweenie," director Rob Letterman (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") and screenwriter Darren Lemke (2013's "Turbo") set out to make the kind of live-action movie Joe Dante doesn't make anymore. In lieu of adapting one of Stine's stories, they use his stories as a meta jumping-off point for a premise that reminds of 1984's "Gremlins," 1987's "The Monster Squad," and 1995's "Jumanji." It will be hard not to get a kick out of this big-screen feature, and what it lacks in adult frights is made up for with a sense of playful fun and an enthusiastic cast.
After the death of his father, 16-year-old Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) tries making the best of the move from New York City's hustle and bustle to the sleepy Delaware town of Madison with his mother, Gale (Amy Ryan), who has accepted a position as a high school vice principal. He quickly meets the teenage girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush), who's homeschooled and overall sheltered by her father, "Mr. Shivers." When Zach suspects a domestic disturbance next door, he will soon discover that "Mr. Shivers" is actually young-adult horror author R.L. Stine (Jack Black) whose bookshelf of manuscripts are all locked. However, when Zach and new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) go snooping into Stine's household to find Hannah, they unlock one, leading to Stine's most malevolent monster, ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black), unleashing every monster the author ever created to leap off the pages and terrorize the suburban town. The only chance any of them have to survive is if the bad-tempered R.L. Stine can write a whole new story to capture all of his creations.
There was an opportunity for "Goosebumps" to be a little spookier and take more advantage of R.L. Stine's literary monsters, but the film's monster-mash premise is plenty inspired to overlook what could have been. A ton of monsters (a demented clown, a mummy, a scarecrow, a pumpkinhead, a vampiric poodle, zombie-like ghouls) are actually only glimpsed as figures in a crowd in group shots that aren't even held for that long. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, a giant praying mantis, the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, a blob, and lawn gnomes, however, are given their own frantic action sequences, all of them rendered as overtly CG creations, while maniacal ventriloquist dummy Slappy (who has a "serious Napoleon complex") has major involvement in the story. In the instance of our heroes battling the evil lawn gnomes, hordes of them have the nasty intent of trying to drag R.L. Stine into an oven (perhaps a nod to director Letterman's own "Gulliver's Travels," which also starred Black), while another throws a knife at Zach and Champ shoves one of the ceramic nightmares down the garbage disposal. The film could have used more of this nightmarish anarchy.
Dylan Minnette's natural charisma and comic timing were showcased in 2014's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," and here, as teen Zach, he handles all of that again with aplomb, as well as the emotions of losing a parent. Odeya Rush (2014's "The Giver"), who resembles Mila Kunis, is touching as Hannah, who has a secret that doesn't allow her to experience a normal teenage life. The choice of casting Jack Black as storyteller R.L. Stine probably came with a lot of trepidation, but he's clearly having a blast and gets the balance right without ever turning Stine into a grating fun sponge. The supporting players are also a fun group, including Ryan Lee, as girl-crazy best friend Champ, whose comic relief is effectively used sparingly; Jillian Bell, her daffy, scene-stealing self as Zach's bedazzling-obsessed, man-chasing Aunt Lorraine; and Timothy Simons, as a police officer, and Amanda Lund, as his gung-ho but ill-informed trainee. As Zach's mother Gale, Amy Ryan shares lovely mother-son moments with Minnette, and while her character is marginalized, she still gets to actualize a character and a few passes at humor.
Some things are best left to childhood memory, but "Goosebumps" is actually pretty entertaining for Kiddo's First Horror Movie without pandering or talking down to its audience. Could it have been scarier? Yes, probably, but it's clear who it was made for, and it will probably give goosebumps to anyone under 8 as a "Cabin in the Woods"-lite romp. There is still plenty that will please those who read the books when they were hot off the press in 1992. A "Steve King" joke is funny, as well as a high school auditorium set of a play for "The Shining." As one would expect, Tim Burton's regular composer Danny Elfman orchestrates an appropriately impish score for the dark-but-not-too-dark material. An old carnival in the woods is atmospheric and it's put to exciting use with a set-piece involving a ferris wheel. The real R.L. Stine gives a cute cameo (listen for his name), and finally, the first set of final credits inventively use the cover art of several of Stine's paperbacks. Amusing and moving at a lively clip, "Goosebumps" is agreeable Halloween fodder for the YA set, and that just might be enough.
Grade: B -