Goosebumps

For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

(2015) Family Comedy (ColumbiaJack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Kreuger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Karan Soni, R.L. Stine, Caleb Emery, Gabriela Fraile, Nate Andrade, Sheldon Brown, Melissa Brewer, Vivian Kyle, Clare Halstead. Directed by Rob Letterman

In the 90s, kids flocked to author R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. The books were essentially Twilight Zone episodes focusing on monsters that terrified many a kid back in the day. Stine continues to be a prolific author but has moved on to different series, but Goosebumps is the one that started it all.

When young Zach Cooper (Minnette) moves to a small Delaware town, he’s not exactly thrilled. He’s still dealing with the death of his dad a year ago and his mom (Ryan) has found a job as an assistant principal at the high school there. She thinks a new start in a new town might bring Zach out of the doldrums and while Zach puts up a good front, it’s clear he’s hurting.

Then he meets the girl next door and for any teenage boy, the girl next door is excellent tonic. Hannah (Rush) is beautiful and seems interested in him, but her tyrannical father (Black) seems more interested in keeping Zach as far away as possible. Georgia might do.

But Zach and his self-appointed friend Champ (Lee) discover that Hannah’s dad is none other than R.L. Stine and that the manuscripts in his basement, all of which are locked, contain the spirits of the monsters he invented and that unlocking those manuscripts transforms the creatures from imaginary to very real. And those real monsters are out to wreak havoc all over town, led by Slappy (also voiced by Black), a homicidal ventriloquist’s dummy that is seeking revenge against Stine for incarcerating him inside the manuscript for so many years.

The concept is a swell one, especially given the popularity of Stine and how many kids – who are now adults with kids of their own – know all of his books backwards and forwards, and for them and kids who are looking at their teen years with impatience, this is going to be a must-see and although Halloween has come and gone, this is excellent kid fare for that season of the year.

Black is as manic as ever as Stine, although his accent is a little bit bizarre. Black, being the human cartoon that he is, is perfect for this kind of audience and he doesn’t disappoint. He doesn’t get the majority of laughs here – Lee gets those – and Minnette is essentially the protagonist but Black is really the presence here. None of the other actors can really compete with his personality which is bigger than life. Bigger than ten lives, to be honest. Rush is also memorable as the ingenue.

The CGI creatures – and there are a lot of them – range from giant praying mantises, abominable snowmen, murderous garden gnomes, hungry zombies, implacable alien invaders and a gigantic Venus flytrap, among others. Pretty much every monster from the prolific series makes at least a cameo appearance, if you can call the Invisible Boy an appearance. In some ways it becomes sensory overload; a few monsters go a long way but hundreds soon becomes kind of background noise.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a nice job of setting the mood, and a setting of an abandoned amusement park is both lovely and bittersweet (Zach and Hannah have an encounter there early in the movie). I could have done with a few more moments like that although frankly, that’s not what the target audience is looking for so I can understand why those moments were few and far between.

The humor is pretty much vintage Nickelodeon although there are some clever bits, most involving Lee as the cowardly wingman. The pacing here is a little bit choppy although it generally moves pretty quickly and to Letterman’s credit he gets right into things without an overabundance of exposition. That’s both good and bad; good for those devotees of the book series who want to get right into it, bad for those less familiar with the books who need at least a little bit of explanation.

For the most part this is harmless entertainment and little more than that. This isn’t going to be (and never was intended to be) anything more than a distraction for a couple of hours. And that isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. For whatever it’s worth, this movie will probably be on a lot of family viewing lists for many Halloweens to come. Not a half bad fate for a movie, don’t you think?

REASONS TO GO: Some scary monsters. Nifty concept.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses something if you haven’t read the books. A little over-the-top in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some creature scares (a few of them intense) and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real R.L. Stine makes a cameo as a teacher named Mr. Black, who passes Jack Black, as R.L. Stine, in the school hallway.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Documented begins!

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