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Family Movie Review: Goosebumps (PG)

Goosebumps ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalhalf popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 103 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 10+. The movie is based on the “Goosebumps” series of children’s literature by R. L. Stine, so there are lots of things that could be scary for very young kids, including an abominable snowman, werewolf, zombies, clowns, mummies, aliens, a demonic dog, a ventriloquist dummy, and a variety of other monsters. Also some kissing between teenagers, the mention of a dead parent, various action sequences (including some car crashes and explosions), some jokes about homophobia, twerking, pedophilia, drug use, and what is presented as “feminine” screaming by a teenage boy.

R. L. Stine’s scary children’s stories come to life in ‘Goosebumps,’ but the film is more funny than frightening. Its uneven character development is its major weak point.

By Roxana Hadadi

Jack Black as children’s horror author R. L. Stine is genius casting. “Goosebumps” has its share of problems – including a completely perfunctory female character and some strange jokes about pedophilia and homophobia that don’t really work in a children’s film – but Black is a demented, glorious loon here, and from his facial expressions to his snark, he delivers. The rest of the movie revolves around him, but it can’t quite keep up.

The “Goosebumps” books by Stine have been a force of nature for years, selling hundreds of millions of copies (400 million, this movie matter-of-factly informs viewers) and spawning a television adaptation. This movie version takes numerous “Goosebumps” stories and shoves them together into one narrative with mixed results, but at least it commits to the span of Stine’s work. There is an evil ventriloquist dummy, a creepy clown, an abominable snowman, a mummy, a werewolf, zombies – any monster that could have ever appeared in a “Goosebumps” story is here, in all of their CGI glory. If you need a Halloween-inspired choice at the movies, clearly “Goosebumps” is meant to be your decision maker.

The film focuses on teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette, of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”), who has just moved from New York City to the small-town Madison, Delaware, with his mother after his father’s death. Anxious about being the new kid, Zach befriends his next-door neighbor, the beautiful and matter-of-fact Hannah (Odeya Rush, of “The Giver”), and the goofy, talkative Champ (Ryan Lee, of “Super 8”). But almost immediately, he irritates Hannah’s father (Jack Black, of “Kung Fu Panda 2”), who warns him to stay away from his daughter – so Zach breaks into their home instead. Of course!

Through an escalating series of events, Zach breaks open a few books sitting on Hannah’s father’s bookcase – manuscripts of “Goosebumps” novels. And lo and behold, the monsters inside come to life, revealing not only that Hannah’s father is R. L. Stine himself, but that his creations aren’t just confined to the page. How to save themselves from the monsters that are after their maker? Stine, Hannah, Zach and Champ will have to work together to stay alive.

Everyone in “Goosebumps” is likeable enough; Minnette and Lee are particularly amusing, and Lee especially holds his own with Black as the grumpy, smug Stine. The CGI effects are obvious but will still work for younger kids, and an extended sequence with a werewolf tracking the group through a grocery store makes good use of 3D. But what is surprisingly frustrating about “Goosebumps” is its character development, which portrays Zach as the genius hero at the expense of everyone else.

How to fight the monsters, how to evade capture, how to break into secure locations – Zach is presented as knowing all of these things, and he leads the group with all of this innate knowledge that is never explained. But how does a random kid know more about escaping from “Goosebumps” monsters than Stine, the actual creator of these monsters, or than Hannah, the creator’s daughter? Her character is especially shortchanged, created only as a plot device to give Zach a love interest and resolved in a way that brings to mind the recent cop-out ending of “Hotel Transylvania 2.” It’s a “happy” conclusion that may delight teenage girls, but it reduces the character in a shocking way.

Aside from that problematic treatment of its main female character, “Goosebumps” is funny and fast-paced enough to work as a Halloween-themed movie choice. And maybe it will inspire some young viewers to pick up Stine’s original books for more scares – never a bad thing.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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