What’s creepier than a clown? A sinister ventriloquist’s dummy with an evil mind of its own, for one thing. In the family-friendly “Goosebumps,” you get both — along with a giant, angry praying mantis, an army of malevolent garden gnomes, zombies, a levitating poodle, a werewolf and an abominable snowman. That’s a recipe for nonstop CGI action, but not much else.
Based on the series of children’s horror stories by R.L. Stine , the big-screen adaptation of “Goosebumps” has been a long time coming. Since 1998, a series of writers and directors have tried to make this movie, and screenwriter Darren Lemke (“Jack the Giant Slayer”) and director Rob Letterman (“Gulliver’s Travels”) finally made it happen.
Stine is an outrageously prolific writer, and his 300-plus published titles — including “It Came From Beneath the Sink!” and “Say Cheese and Die!” — tend to be short and formulaic: A kid, usually a recent transplant, is confronted by some spooky strangeness and has to use his or her ingenuity to secure a happily-ever-after (or at least a bizarre-twist) ending. In the movie, the new guy is sarcastic teen Zach (Dylan Minnette), who has just moved to Madison, Del., from New York after the death of his father.
The spooky strangeness starts in the house next door, home to the lovely, funny Hannah (Odeya Rush) and her weirdo dad (Jack Black), who greets his new neighbor by saying, “You see that fence? Stay on your side of it!” Nice guy.
Dad happens to be none other than R.L. Stine himself — or, at least a Jack Black-ified version of the writer, whose terrifying creations are so vivid that they’ve come to life, although they remain imprisoned inside locked manuscripts.
When Zach and his new friend Champ (Ryan Lee), the dorky, toothy epitome of adolescence, sneak into the writer’s house, they unlock one of the books, and out pops the Abominable Snowman, looking like an albino villain from “Planet of the Apes.” The kids manage to suck the yeti back into his literary cage, but while they’re busy, other monsters get out and start a mutiny, freeing all of the creatures. Suddenly the small town is inundated by potentially deadly supernatural beasts. This being a “Goosebumps” adaptation, no one is ever truly in danger of dying.
The movie is little more than a parade of chase scenes. The praying mantis hunts Stine and the kids until they find refuge in a supermarket, where the werewolf terrorizes them until they escape to a cemetery, where the zombies appear. It’s occasionally funny and sometimes suspenseful, but it isn’t particularly imaginative. Then again, neither are Stine’s popular novellas.
“Goosebumps” is capably acted by its trio of teens, and Black, as always, supplies some laughs with his acrobatic eyebrows. But the laughs give us only small respites from the endless action, which looks so obviously computer-generated. The production values are better suited for a television movie, and the music, by Danny Elfman, is distractingly intrusive. When Zach and his mother (Amy Ryan) first move to the suburbs, and she remarks on how delightfully silent their new home is, it seems like an odd time to have the score cluttering the very stillness she’s remarking on. But so it goes with a movie that puts a lot more thought into the chase than on the people running.
PG. At area theaters. Contains fantasy action, scary images and some crude humor. 103 minutes.