★★★ / ★★★★
Right from its first few minutes, “Goosebumps,” directed by Rob Letterman, overcomes a major concern of having the quality of a direct-to-DVD piece of work but was released in theaters anyway because it boasts household names: Jack Black, R.L. Stine, and the “Goosebumps” brand.
Looking at the first scene closely where a mother and son, Gale (Amy Ryan) and Zach (Dylan Minnette), move into their new home, there is a warmth in their relationship and yet there is a hint of sadness, too. We learn that they migrated from the city to the suburb partly so that they can move on from the death of a family member. Then it makes sense: their bond is especially close because the memory of the passing remains fresh.
The screenplay avoids the expected, tired scenario of a teenager being or acting annoyed toward a parent for having been torn away from friends or a familiar milieu. Instead, the focus is on the love the two characters share and what they are willing to sacrifice to make the transition easier for one another. Notice that Dylan is able to make fun of himself just so there is laughter in their new home. The screenplay by Darren Lemke is surprisingly efficient in establishing likable characters who are of substance, worth following through whatever story is going to be told.
Although there is a lack of genuine scares, there are a handful of well-executed suspenseful scenes with a beginning, middle, and a twist. Of particular standouts involve Zach and his new friend named Champ (Ryan Lee) breaking into a secretive neighbor’s home—so secretive that there are bear traps in the basement, facing The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena in an ice rink, and being hunted by The Werewolf of Fever Swamp in a supermarket. The varying energies in these scenes are spooky, fun, and infectious and so we look forward to the next paranormal encounter. With each new environment, one can expect a run-in with a creature or mysterious entity. Thus, the film moves at a constant forward momentum so it is never boring.
Although one-on-one encounters work, less effective are the scenes where the monsters converge in one place. The third act, although tolerable, is not strong. This is because the CGI is so overwhelming at times that everything begins to look fake. The more there is to look at, the less convincing the danger. It would have been preferred if the leader of the monsters, Slappy the Dummy from the “Night of the Living Dummy” books (voiced by Black), had a more active, cleverer role in terrorizing the mean neighbor, his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), Champ, and Zach instead of commanding creatures to do his bidding. Slappy is one of the more terrifying (and devilishly creative) characters in the “Goosebumps” series and so it is a slight disappointment that he is not written as more menacing here. Instead, he gets pun-tastic one-liners.
I found the ending to be disloyal to the “Goosebumps” brand and so, despite its aforementioned strengths, I was this close to giving it only a marginal recommendation. Each R.L. Stine story has a lesson. Here, it is being able to deal with personal losses. This is hinted at the beginning of the film where Zach is shown to be missing his father as he watches a homemade video.
However, in order to have a standard, kid-friendly happy ending, the last few minutes cheats, essentially, by circumventing the fact that sudden losses, grief, and sadness are a part of life. I felt offended by the decision. I would rather have a film that inspires conversation afterwards—especially between parent and child—than the audience forgetting about the experience almost immediately because the material fails to leave a lasting impression that feels exactly right to the story.