Goosebumps (2015) / Comedy-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage
Cameo: R. L. Stine
Director: Rob Letterman

Screenplay: Darren Lemke
Review published October 18, 2015

Considering R. L. Stine's wildly popular "Goosebumps" series books have sold over 400 million copies worldwide, including forays into a TV show and video games, it's a major surprise that Goosebumps represents the first big-screen association of these childhood staples for many kids over the last couple of decades.  Though attempts have been made, most notably by Tim Burton and George Romero, the biggest question by those who've tried is which of the original 62 book published in the 1990s (182 if you consider the revamps and spin-offs that came later) should someone start off with?  With 2015's Goosebumps, scripted by Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer, Shrek Forever After), the answer is: as many as possible.  And not only that, but this fun, only sporadically self-aware entry also makes a fictional version of R. L. Stine one of the main protagonists.

Though Jack Black (The D Train, Sex Tape) gets his name above the title, the lead role goes to Dylan Minnette (Alexander and the...Bad Day, Labor Day), who plays Zach Cooper, a skittish teenager who has recently relocated with his mother Gale (Ryan, Bridge of Spies) from New York to (fictional) Madison, Delaware when she accepts a vice principal position on Zach's new high school.  Zach isn't particularly keen on the unexciting town until he meets Hannah (Rush, The Giver), the cute girl next door, with whom he becomes fast friends, though Hannah's feisty and reclusive father, revealed later in the film as R. L. Stine himself (Black), thinks she should have nothing to do with Zach or anyone else.  Thinking she might be a victim of domestic abuse, Zach and another new friend named Champ (Lee, This is 40), decide to break in the Stine household to save her, then soon discover a library of locked manuscripts to the "Goosebumps" series that Zach inadvertently opens, unleashing the manifestation of the monster contained within: the Abominable Snowman.  In the scuffle with the mammoth beast, another book gets opened that unleashes a malevolent ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (also voiced by Black), who proceeds to unlock all of the rest of the books and the dangerous monsters contained within.

Unless your child is still at an impressionable age when the "Goosebumps" books can give them real goose bumps, this PG-rated film is more likely to elicit more smirks than scares, working better as a comedic fantasy than as something meant to keep youngsters up all night.  In many ways, Goosebumps might be seen as more a formula successor to such CGI-infused mayhem family films like Jumanji and Night at the Museum than in Stine's works.  There's really not much to the plot other than for the protagonists to be chased around by the monster horde, while Stine seeks to write an all-new novel in the manner he wrote his old one (in manuscript form on a Smith-Corona typewriter that may have magic powers) with all of the characters he ever created on the hope that he can capture lightning in a bottle (or, in this case, a book) again.

While the film is big in terms of its budget full of crazy, well-rendered CGI creations and lots of destruction of its small town, the film also feels a bit small, with most of the residents of Madison cryogenically suspended in their places by aliens with freeze guns.  Unlike real life, where all of the zany events would have likely been captured and posted immediately to YouTube and Facebook, or, at the very least, called someone and likely would have alerted and prompted the U.S. Military to move in, the script keeps it all contained to the characters at hand.  With the exception of a couple of bumbling cops who never see any real action, we realize that in this fictional world, only the four main characters can solve the mess they've created, so suspension of disbelief is warranted to properly enjoy it.

Jack Black gets his most appealing lead role in years, working yet again, this time more successfully, with Gulliver's Travels director Rob Letterman.  The teens are capably cast, with Ryan Lee stealing most of the slapstick-infused jokes as Champ, the geeky scaredy-cat whose main emphasis on doing anything seems to be to try to gain the attention of a girl -- any girl.  Also stealing quite a few scenes is Jillian Bell (Inherent Vice), playing Zach's daffy, man-hungry aunt Lorraine, who seems to have no filter on what she says, which makes for some funny awkward moments.  The two semi-romantic leads, nicely played by Minnette and Rush, even manage to generate some sweetness to the mix that is surprising for a vacuous movie of this ilk.

Fans of the "Goosebumps" books will likely have an extra level of nostalgic fun reminiscing when seeing some of these monster characters that freaked them out a little in book form come to life as one of the nemeses in a big-screen adventure. It's a PG-rated film, so nothing gory or truly abhorrent occurs, and you never truly sense that anyone is in real danger for even a moment, which makes it suitable all but the most squeamish of children as a mildly scary and generally amusing escapist adventure.  Goosebumps won't raise the arm hairs much, or your pulse rates even a beat, but it's an amiable fright flick released shortly before Halloween that should be fun enough to appeal to lovers of rip-roaring juvenile adventures meant to entertain both young and old.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo