31 Days to Scare ~ Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

The Facts:

Synopsis: Halloween comes to life in a comedy adventure based on R.L. Stine’s 400-million-selling series of books.

Stars: Jack Black, Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jeremy Ray Taylor

Director: Ari Sandel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Fall is in the air and it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Halloween. This is the time each year I can watch whatever I want if it’s related to Halloween and not feel the least bit of guilt for neglecting non-genre films. That’s why I opted out of a screening for a movie with considerable more buzz than Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and found myself in an early evening preview of this follow-up to the modest hit from 2015.  Side note…why aren’t all screenings at 6:30pm?  Makes it possible to have some part of your night free if you’re seeing a shorter film.

I found the first Goosebumps to be a perfectly fine family film that tweens could watch with their parents as an alternative to the adult fare. I’m already dreading seeing how many children there will be at the new Halloween movie next week. The original had a good-set up, decent effects, solid acting, and while it turned into too much mayhem near the end with iffy CGI it was still more than modestly enjoyable. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware a sequel was greenlit, much less in the can and ready to go until I caught the first preview several months back.

With the principals from the first film unavailable and star Jack Black (The D Train) tied up making the also Halloween family friendly The House with a Clock in Its Walls, screenwriter Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Peter Rabbit) and original writer Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) fashioned a new story set in a different fictional town in upstate New York that takes their Halloween very seriously. Houses are decorated to the max (must be nice to have expendable cash) and costumes are several notches above your standard vampire fangs.  Sonny (Jeremy Taylor Ray, IT) and his upperclassman sister Sarah (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) live with their single mom Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Blended) in Wardenclyffe, NY and it’s almost Halloween. Sarah is occupied with boyfriend troubles and trying to get into college, Kathy is overworked, and Sonny is just trying to perfect his school science experiment. Though it often takes a backseat to the shenanigans that will follow, there’s a nice family dynamic created here and one that stresses responsibility to ones self and loved ones – not a bad message hiding amidst all the scares.

Together with his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), Sonny finds himself in an abandoned house cleaning out junk and that’s where the two boys come across a hidden chest that holds only a locked book and a key. Opening the book releases Slappy the ventriloquist dummy and that’s when all Halloween hell breaks loose. Though Slappy originally starts out as being somewhat helpful by showing Sonny and Sam’s bullies a thing or two and doing their chores, his benign nature gives away to something more evil when he causes an accident that sends Sarah’s cheating boyfriend to the hospital. Eventually, Slappy’s true nature is revealed…he wants to make Halloween come to life 365 days a year and rouses every manner of beast and ghoulie to achieve his task.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for a short film in 2007. I haven’t seen that movie but it’s clear he has some style seeing that the movie bops along so pleasantly for its 90 minutes. It’s fast moving without making too many narrative leaps and surprisingly cohesive even with a sometimes overstuffed plot. Introducing R.L. Stine (Black, who also provides the menacing voice for Slappy) late into the mix feels unnecessary because he doesn’t have much to do. I get the impression Black became available after the script was completed and went through a small revision to include him. It’s all low-stakes but that’s what makes it a less intense experience than the first one, making it easier to recommend for smaller children…but parents should still heed the PG rating if your kid is of the nervous variety or else plan to invest in a nightlight.

I’m liking these low-impact scary films targeted at families more and more as studios start to get the idea of how to make them not quite so scary. While it isn’t something I would normally seek out in theaters, both Goosebumps films (and a second sequel hinted at in the finale) have been pleasant diversions to the more intense creepy fare that rises from the dead this time of the year.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?