As if their Adam Sandler flop “Pixels” wasn’t juvenile enough, Sony Entertainment offers what’s essentially a kiddie version of it in “Goosebumps,” a similarly misguided mixture of animation and live action, this time involving an invasion not of characters from old video games but of monsters from the mildly scary books for youngsters by R.L. Stine. If parents are worried about any potentially traumatic effect on their offspring, they can be assured that the only thing frightening about the movie is how lame it is.
The premise is that straight-arrow teen Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his widowed mom Gale (Amy Ryan) move from New York City to the small Delaware where his intrusively helpful aunt Lorraine (Jillian Ryan) lives. Their new house is next door to that of a pretty girl named Hannah (Odeya Rush), who quickly catches Zach’s eye. But her father (Jack Black) is an ultra-possessive sort, rudely telling the boy to keep off their property. When Zach witnesses an argument between father and daughter, however, he concludes that he’s done something to her and—after the useless intervention of the goofy local cops—breaks into the house along with Champ (Ryan Lee), the class geek who’s glommed onto him in search of friendship. They discover a cache of manuscripts of the “Goosebumps” books, all strangely locked; and when one is accidentally opened, it releases its subject, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, into the world. Before long creatures from the remaining books are on the loose as well, all up to no good under the direction of Slappy the Dummy, the malevolent puppet from The Night of the Living Dummy and its various sequels.
It turns out that Hannah’s father is none other than R.L. Stine, the “Goosebumps” author who’s turned into a reclusive grouch precisely to prevent his destructive creations from escaping into the real world. Now he and Hannah must join forces with Zach and Champ to prevent Slappy and his army of critters from turning their town into a ruin as a prelude to taking over the world.
The result is an escalating chain of frenzied action sequences in which the heroic little band of misfits must confront the spooky creatures and put a stop to their misdeeds, sometimes one-on-one but often in groups (including a big final showdown). They face off against the snowman on an ice rink, for example, and a werewolf in a super market; and the local high school predictably becomes a war zone, with students trapped in the gym where a dance is being held. Naturally some adults—Lorraine, the cops—get involved as well, but mostly for slapstick purposes. A few of these encounters are mildly amusing, but essentially they’re just a mess of kid-friendly chases and special effects of variable quality.
It’s difficult to understand what Black, working again with director Rob Letterman (together they gave us the equally effects-happy bomb “Gulliver’s Travels,” which trashed a genuine literary classic), was after here; but he plays Stine as a stiff, stuffy sort, without the looseness that’s often been the best thing about his performances. Nor does it help that the youngsters are a generally nondescript lot. Minnette exudes an eager boyishness and Rush a likable directness, but neither comes across as especially distinctive, while Lee, with his prominent teeth, makes for a generic goofy sidekick. The older members of the supporting cast—Bell, Ken Marino as a coach, Timothy Simons as a buffoonish cop—are forced to offer little beyond witless mugging. Stine himself shows up for a cameo near the close, exchanging greetings (as well as identities) with Black; he shouldn’t abandon his typewriter for the soundstage. Most of the animated creatures lack personality as well, as interchangeable as the army of malevolent garden gnomes the band of heroes the heroes must deal with at one point. The major exception is Slappy, who’s voiced by Black. He makes for a bland arch-villain.
Technically “Goosebumps” certainly trumps the cable TV series previously made from Stine’s stories—“Goosebumps” and “The Haunting Hour” (in a couple of episodes of which Minnette had already appeared). But quite honestly it’s not appreciably better in overall quality. As a Halloween release this qualifies as more trick than treat.