'Goosebumps' turns R.L. Stine's kiddie horrors into a riff on 'Gremlins'
Jack Black leads a clever, goofy take on R.L. Stine's "Goosebump" series, which fills a suburb with a horde of freaky beasties.
Director: Rob Letterman
Stars: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette
3 (out of 5) Globes
The “Goosebumps” movie does a “21 Jump Street”-movie on R.L. Stine’s rash of kiddie spooksters, which is to say it doesn’t take a semi-serious institution too seriously. It even borrows “22 Jump Street” scene-stealer Jillian Bell to deadpan things like, “I should listen to my psychic: I should stop dating liars and never get on an airplane.” Jokes fly as fast as the many monsters. There are Detroit jokes, laserdisc jokes, jokes that mock horror movie conventions, even a joke about confusing “audiofile” with “pedophile” — the last one slipped into a nice, if sometimes harrowing, PG-rated family film.
But it does something else. It wants to revive the ’80s Spielberg movies that Spielberg himself didn’t make. Specifically it wants to be Joe Dante’s “Gremlins,” only stocked with a couple dozen types of beasties, shaken from about half of Stine’s original 1990s run. Our hero, Dylan Minette’s Zach — who jarringly toggles between bland Abercrombie rent-a-hunk and sarcasm machine with pretty sharp timing — even arrives in a sleepy suburb to a score that sounds exactly like “Beetlejuice”-era Danny Elfman. Even more shockingly: It is by Danny Elfman, who’s barely made a hummable score since the ’90s. Zach quickly catches the eye of nice Hannah (Odeya Rush), followed shortly by her creepy, overprotective father, “Mr. Shivers” (Jack Black), who forbids him from coming near them for reasons vague enough to be enticing.
As it happens, Mr. Shivers is R.L. Stine himself, or at least the movie’s cartoonish fictionalized version. His monstrous creations — more than half of them repurposed from very well-established fiends, like werewolves and talking dummy named Slappy with a yen for groaning puns — are, it turns out, real, albeit contained within Stine’s locked books. The locks, naturally, come undone, and soon the suburb is swirling with freaky, psycho monsters. But “Goosebumps” isn’t out to scare you so much as make you squee at the giddy mayhem, as, say, a horde of sentient garden trolls break from their fixed clay positions and start messing up our heroes.
There are plenty of creatures to choose from, so many that the script often loses track of them, making one notice that as much as it aspires to Joe Dante-level madness, it can’t help but feel a little sloppy. (And it rarely lets them take over the film, as Tim Burton gladly did to the retro aliens in “Mars Attacks!”) It’s close enough, though, complete with a nod to classic cinema in the form of a “Lady from Shanghai”-style mirror climax. Even the inevitable drippy romance between Zach and Hannah — which is at least fixed with a fairly out-there twist — can’t overshadow the comic zeal, led by a rarely more committed Black. Safe to say no one can deliver the line “It’s Slappy’s revenge!” quite like him.