'Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween': Film Review

Plenty of monsters, not enough Jack Black.

Slappy the Dummy unleashes an army of Halloween creatures on a small town in this sequel to the 2015 hit film based on R.L. Stine's best-selling books.

The good news is that, despite his absence in the credits, Jack Black returns in the Goosebumps sequel to play author R.L. Stine and provide the voice of Slappy the Dummy.

The bad news is that there's not nearly enough of him.

That there would be a sequel to the 2015 box-office hit ($150 million worldwide) based on Stine's best-selling children's books (400 million copies and counting) was a given. Unfortunately, this installment pales in comparison to its enjoyable predecessor, often resembling the sort of low-budget, direct-to-video installment that arrives much later in a franchise. Although it provides a fair number of mild scares and laughs, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween feels more like a kiddie film than did the original.

One reason for its more juvenile feel is that Black is mostly absent from the proceedings (visually at least), not showing up until the final scenes. Tellingly, his appearance instantly lifts the film, providing it with the sly, hysterical humor it so sorely needs. He scores more laughs in just a few minutes than the rest of the pic in its entirety. The actor's voice work as Slappy also proves terrific, infusing the malevolent wooden character with nasty comic flair.   

Otherwise, the movie, using an original story rather than one from one of Stine's many books, is fairly standard stuff. The action revolves around three kids — the electricity obsessed Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor), his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris) and Sonny's older sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) — teaming up to thwart Slappy's plans to take over their town. The wisecracking ventriloquist's dummy was accidentally brought back to life by Sonny and Sam, who earn extra money with an after-school job as the "Junk Brothers." While emptying out a dilapidated home once supposedly inhabited by Stine, they encounter a locked book, an unpublished Stine tome. Upon opening it and reciting an attached incantation, they find themselves face to face with the reanimated Slappy, who wants nothing more than to be a part of their family.

Unfortunately, Slappy's emotional desperation manifests itself in violent ways, such as when he takes it upon himself to physically punish Madison's cheating boyfriend. The youngsters manage to subdue him, putting him in a manacled suitcase which they throw into a lake. But that doesn't stop Slappy, who, spurned by his hoped-for human family, promptly creates one of his own by bringing to life an army of Halloween monsters, including numerous Goosebumps characters as well as sharp-toothed gummy bears and flying witches. The kids desperately reach out for help from Stine, whose manuscript led to all the trouble.

Director Ari Sandel stages the outlandish, creepy mayhem with flair, and the creature designs are frequently imaginative and visually striking. And to screenwriter Rob Lieber's credit, the young characters actually resemble real children as opposed to the wisecracking juvenile vaudevillians frequently populating Hollywood comedies. The young leads handle their assignments well, with Taylor particularly endearing as the budding young scientist who reveres Nikola Tesla (you can't say the film isn't educational). The adult ringers in the cast include Wendi McLendon-Covey, bringing her estimable comic chops to the role of Sonny and Sarah's mom; Chris Parnell, endearing as a hardware store manager whom Slappy transforms into a green ogre; and Ken Jeong, largely wasted as a neighbor whose garishly decorated front lawn resembles a Halloween theme park.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, which features a cameo by the real-life Stine, manages not to wear out its welcome, running a fleet 90 minutes including lengthy credits. It should please younger fans of the books who will have no problem with its rudimentary storyline all too repetitive of the original. But it does feel like a missed opportunity to elevate the valuable franchise to bigger and more imaginative heights.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, Original Film, Scholastic Entertainment, Silvertongue Films
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Cast: Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong
Director: Ari Sandel
Screenwriter: Rob Lieber
Producers: Deborah Forte, Neal H. Moritz
Executive producers: Timothy M. Bourne, Tania Landau
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Editors: David Rennie, Keith Brachmann
Composer: Dominic Lewis
Costume designer: Salvador Perez

Rated PG, 90 minutes