R.L. Stine’s tween-targeting scary stories get a fittingly juvenile – if unintentionally self-critical – adaptation courtesy of “Goosebumps,” a film that assembles many of the author’s most memorable creations with noisy, tossed-off sloppiness. The second straight pairing between director Rob Letterman and his “Gulliver’s Travels” headliner Jack Black, this frantic muddle of an adventure assumes that kids will so easily recognize and comprehend its cast of archetypes that no character development is necessary. Consequently, it spends most of its time indulging in CG craziness that’s only matched in sheer, uninhibited intensity by the mugging of its star. Introduced making pursed-lipped threats from a window (and then, shortly thereafter, from between a fence’s slats), Black is a runaway cartoon as the children’s-lit novelist, overacting as if he were being paid by the wacky facial expression.
If so, he must have been compensated handsomely, because “Goosebumps” never wastes a chance to capture Black in extreme close-ups fit for hammy snarls and wide-eyed looks. His dialed-to-eleven performance quickly wears out its welcome, as does the rest of Letterman’s film, which rampages through set pieces like a kid racing to get to the bathroom before wetting himself. Games of hide-and-seek with hungry werewolves in grocery store aisles coexist side-by-side with flights from gigantic oceans of ooze and trips aboard Ferris wheels rolling through forests. An abominable snowman wreaks havoc in a home and, later an ice rink, followed later by the resurrection of a zombie army in a nocturnal cemetery. There are also nasty garden gnomes and enormous insects and haunted cars populating this overstuffed tale, and at the center of this supernatural maelstrom, there’s Slappy (also voiced by Black), an evil ventriloquist doll who’s the dark flip-side of Stine, who gets very angry if you call him a “dummy.”
For people of a certain age who grew up on Stine’s books, these fantastical fiends’ appearance will likely be met with nostalgic glee. Alas, as concocted by director Letterman, they’re poorly rendered computerized knock-offs of famous baddies. Less scary than simply chaotic, “Goosebumps” understands that Stine’s modus operandi wasn’t creating unique villains so much as reconfiguring familiar foes for horror-neophyte adolescents, and it generates a bit of cheeky humor from the film’s protagonist, bland new-kid-in-town Zack (Dylan Minnette), slamming Stine for being a second-rate Stephen King. While it certainly means its self-conscious jokes to be in good fun, Stine’s unimaginative repurposing of iconic monsters proves to be an undercurrent running throughout the adaptation, to the point that director Letterman and screenwriter Darren Lemke – in their numerous wink-wink allusions to “Magic,” “The Shining,” “Christine,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and other classics – seem engaged in an unflattering autocritique of their own source material as fundamentally derivative.
As for its inconsequential story, “Goosebumps” involves Zack’s madcap exploits alongside Stine after the latter’s manuscripts – which are sealed by lock and key – are opened, and his myriad beasts and baddies literally leap off the page to destroy the town. A backstory explanation for Stine’s ability to make his inventions come to life is proffered in a hurried, half-hearted manner that underlines the film’s fundamental disinterest in storytelling. That’s also true of the romance between Zack and Hannah (Odeya Rush), Stine’s daughter, whose deep dark secret won’t be a surprise to anyone already aware of the “Goosebumps” books’ habit of delivering mid-point twists. Not that any if it really matters – in this fast-forward fantasy, individual traits and interpersonal relationships are denoted through a few shared glances and/or rolls of the eyes, and defined by their wholesale superficiality.
“Goosebumps” drums up a couple of laughs from characters sarcastically bad-mouthing others for spouting the very clichéd things movie characters might say in those situations. Yet even when bellowing “Shut up!” to Zach’s geeky sidekick Champ (Ryan Lee), Black seems well aware that he’s not so much acting as operating as a clownish axis upon which the film’s special effects pivot – and thus as just a functional component of a franchise that, having made the jump from page to screen, remains committed to corny, childish creepiness. [C]