[Screen It]


(2015) (Jack Black, Dylan Minnette) (PG)

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Action/Horror: A widow and her teenage son move in next door to a quirky horror novelist, who keeps his monstrous creations literally locked in his books.
New York City teenager Zach (DYLAN MINNETTE) is still reeling from the death of his father a year earlier when his mother, Gale (AMY RYAN), is hired by a high school in small-town Delaware to be the next assistant principal. They are sad to leave the big city, but are at least glad the town of Madison is where Gale's quirky, loving sister, Lorraine (JILLIAN BELL), also lives.

In the first couple of days, Zach meets three people who will become very important to him. The first is Champ (RYAN LEE), a nerdy type who immediately claims Zach as his best friend. The second is Hannah (ODEYA RUSH), the pretty teenage girl next door who is home-schooled. And the third is her perpetually angry, overprotective father who turns out to be R.L. Stine, the reclusive author of the "Goosebumps" series of young-adult horror novels.

When Zach thinks that Hannah is in danger of abuse, he and Champ break into Stine's home one night. When they stumble into the house's library, they learn the man's secret identity. They also learn that the monsters he has created over the years are real and he keeps them trapped in his original manuscripts. Soon, Zach and Champ have accidentally unleashed on the town such fanciful, but evil creations as the Invisible Boy, the Abominable Snowman, the Werewolf, and many more all under the command of Slappy (voice of JACK BLACK), a bitter ventriloquist dummy with a Napoleonic complex.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Most people who look back with nostalgia at the movies of the 1980s will often cite the most obvious examples that defined the cinema of that decade -- those only-in-the-'80s flicks like "Top Gun" and "Wall Street" and "Back to the Future" and your pick of the John Hughes high-school comedies. But when I look at those years, I remember a lot of big and small genre movies that the good people who made the new "Goosebumps" obviously cherish as much as I do. I'm talking about flicks like "Fright Night," "House," "The Monster Squad," "Weird Science," and "Gremlins." Their movie DNA is smeared all over this flick, but it's done so very cleverly, very lovingly, and very effectively. I was thoroughly entertained.

Based on the mega-popular series of young adult novels that have entertained tweens and teens for years and sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, "Goosebumps" centers on teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom, Gale (Amy Ryan), who move in next door to a strange, angry, introverted man (Jack Black) and his home-schooled teenage daughter, Hanna (Odeya Rush). Zach soon learns that the dad is none other than R.L. Stine, the author of the "Goosebumps" books. He also learns that Stine has a literally active imagination. The monsters and creatures he has conjured up for the page over the years have all literally come to life, and he keeps them trapped in his original manuscripts with magical locks and keys. Of course, Zach and his new nerdy best friend, Champ (Ryan Lee), accidentally set them loose on their little Delaware town one night.

The creatures are a mix of CGI effects, actors, and puppets. There are a LOT of jump-out scares and intense attacks in the film. But director Rob Letterman works very well within the PG confines to deliver a film where the threats feel real, but he's not making "The Walking Dead" here or imitation Eli Roth. There is also a bit of comedy to lighten the tension, a funny throwaway line or a wink-wink bit of whimsy to let the youngest ones know that nothing REALLY bad is going to happen. It's all in good fun. Go with it.

What I really loved about the movie is its sense of play. When Black's Stine gets caught in a metal fence because he's too portly and there are zombies closing in on him from behind, he implores his three teenage charges to leave him and go save themselves. Heroic Zach and loyal Hannah stay. Champ, who has already let it be known early that he will run in the face of danger, says, "OK, thanks" and then books off in the opposite direction. It's a very funny moment that feels real and genuine, but also lets the littlest ones in the audience know that this is all a bunch of silliness and those scary hordes of undead aren't going to really devour Stine, Zach, and Hannah.

The film is exceptionally well-cast. Black once again works better with kids a la "School of Rock" than he ever has with people his own age. He's also great as the voice of the film's main villain, a ventriloquist dummy named Slappy who is part Charlie McCarthy/part Chucky. And the three younger leaders are not some green kids on the big screen for the first time. Minnette is wonderfully confident as Zach, having already cut his teeth on drama ("Prisoners") and family comedy ("Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day"). Rush could easily play Mila Kunis' kid sister in anything and was memorable in "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." And Lee, late of TV's "Trophy Wife," is a bona fide scene stealer on the level of Stephen Geoffreys' Evil Ed from "Fright Night."

The film also has room in it for a few quirky character turns from the likes of Jillian Bell (last year's "22 Jump Street") as Zach's overly chipper aunt, and Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund as the town's dim-bulb police force who end up being no help to Stine, Zach and the others at all.

Sure, I have a few nitpicks. We're supposed to believe that Stine can write a novel-length manuscript in the span of maybe a couple of hours that will trap anew the creatures spilling out from his previously protected manuscripts. And as you've likely seen from the commercials and trailers, the CGI effects are hit or miss. The filmmakers clearly don't want to make creatures like the Werewolf and the Abominable Snowman too scary. So, they lean more towards the cartoony. And that doesn't always contrast well with Slappy, who is a real puppet, or such throwaway characters played by actual people like a killer clown.

But, all in all, this was just an exercise in fun that is targeted at kids, but doesn't forget the grown-ups in the audience. It also doesn't insult their intelligence or the savvy of today's kids. I hope it will be a monster hit. I give it a 7 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed October 12, 2015 / Posted October 16, 2015

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