A tongue-in-cheek love note to spook stories of yesteryear, “Goosebumps” is a kid-friendly crowd pleaser adults can love, too. It reworks R.L. Stine’s scary novelettes into a wildly clever fusion of yuks and yikes. Reading Stine time after time to my kids, I thought his stories were rudimentary, formulaic time-fillers. Really, a vampire poodle?
Reinventing the tales on-screen makes all the difference. Digging into Stine’s 100-odd yarns with an anarchic sense of fun, adding a charming cast and building an entire domain of monsters and mummies and skeletons with its own cultures and rules all make “Goosebumps” a demented frolic.
We begin in suburban purgatory, as teenage Zach (the winning Dylan Minnette) and his high school assistant principal mother (ever-hilarious Amy Ryan) settle in after moving from New York City. Looking at pleasantly dull Madison, Del., Zach considers his life over. The only new classmate who wants to be his friend is a dweeb clumsily named Champ (Ryan Lee from J.J. Abrams’ fine “Super 8”).
Luckily, just across the neighbor’s fence lives the rather great Hannah (Odeya Rush), a home schooler with girlfriend potential. Unluckily, her father is there, poking his angry face between the fence’s slats like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” It gets worse. Hannah inexplicably disappears after a loud argument with her dad, Zach peeping at their quarrel from his bedroom in classic “Rear Window” style. Maybe it’s not his life that’s over.
That’s just the setup for a continually clever framework of surprises, beginning with the identity of that nasty man next door. He is no one other than bestselling author R.L. Stine, played with peevish gusto by Jack Black. He is an antisocial curmudgeon whose library of old sealed manuscripts is about to unleash a battalion of monstrosities wreaking havoc on the city.
Let’s give away no surprises but just say that “Goosebumps” is a delightful exception to the view that the source material always tops the film version.
The story becomes a never-ending battle against nasty garden gnomes, carnivorous Venus flytraps and horrid aliens with freeze rays. They trample across the town’s ultra-amateur police squad and head toward the unsuspecting kids holding that evening’s high school prom, bludgeoning every human they encounter with comic enthusiasm.
The ringleader of the assault is none other than Slappy, the ventriloquist’s puppet from “Night of the Living Dummy.” That is Black’s vocal secondary lead role, making each one sound like a twisted echo of the other. Slappy is aiming for revenge against his creator, sarcastically calling Stine “Daddy” and warning, “Don’t call me dummy!”
Written with tongue-in-cheek genius by Mike White, who also scripted Black’s sublime sugar rush “School of Rock,” there are countless forms of family conflict among the various characters here, each slice uproarious. The film takes high-level inspiration from a grab bag of bookstore detritus, reworking Stine’s boogeymen just as he revised them from antique campfire stories. Every battle follows a unique plan as Stine and his three young helpers strategize how to beat their supernatural foes. When a giant yeti chases you into the ice rink, you jump on the Zamboni and race away, right? Wait, it’s not fast.
Even physical comedy packed with inventive computer animation and sharp editing needs some time out. “Goosebumps” zigzags into unexpectedly sharp pop-culture humor, with fine gags about Stine’s writer’s vanity and his feud with book-selling rival Stephen King. While dreadful things happen to many characters, no one seems to be badly hurt, with the possible exception of Stine’s ego. I think he can bear it. If Stine were not one of the world’s most popular children’s authors, this wild delight would push him there.