By: Steve Pulaski
I was a pretty big fan of
What we're left with is a serviceable but shoddy attempt at tween horror-comedy. The film doesn't impress on the level of generating age-appropriate chills and it lacks that humorously cynical edge of the previous picture that, again, came from Black's performance as the bitter author R. L. Stine. With gutted of the source of its charm, it already leaves a gaping hole in its screenplay that isn't adequately filled by any of the youthful stars. Also working against it are its mishandled premise, as the film is merely 83 minutes long. It's over so quickly that the concept of Halloween coming to life barely gets off the ground; not nearly enough to the point we feel satisfied that it took advantage of even half of its possibilities. This is the case where a below-average sequel is compounded by a strong first installment, subsequent expectations, and where only a few blows to major components in the film and its premise make that below-average film seem like a greater disappointment.
The film begins by showing Sarah ( 's Madison Iseman) struggling to write a college essay about a time she either succumbed to her fears or bravely overcame them. She's pestered by her mother (Wendy McLendon-Covey), who insist that she babysit her science-minded younger brother Sonny ( 's Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam ( 's Caleel Harris) — despite knowing full well her daughter's future is dependent on this essay. But whatever. Sonny and Sam are busy entrepreneurs who have started their own "picking" business, which involves them scouting abandoned houses and storage units in search of neat junk they can flip. At one of their more interesting stops, they find a mysterious book written by R. L. Stine along with a ventriloquist doll named Slappy (voiced by Jack Black).
Slappy comes to life in the knick of time to help Sonny and Sam evade a group of bullies who want to steal their newfound treasures. While he initially proves helpful to the boys, he quickly becomes disturbingly infatuated with Sarah and their mother, as he plots to become "part of the family." Slappy then tries to get his wish by bringing Stine's book — an unpublished manuscript — to life, summoning the monsters that run amok in a story about turning Halloween into a living holiday, where a variety of real monsters are unleashed into the streets. Aiding him is a Nikola Tesla lightning mechanism the boys worked on as a science project, which somehow helps animate everything from Jack-O-Lanterns, inflatable ghosts, and those large, furry tarantulas that lurk in people's yards.
By the time this all occurs, is so chaotic that it's hard to decipher what exactly is happening, let alone the stakes. The monsters don't cause as much havoc as they make noise nor are they showcased en masse in order to be as satisfying as they could. This is a film that is only as amusing as its asides, and while there are sporadically entertaining moments involving some of these monsters, none are particularly well-executed to the point where it makes this direct-to-video-esque sequel worth enduring.
Some of those aforementioned asides do involve a mutiny of shapeshifting gummy bears, which I'll admit makes for a fairly entertaining bit. My favorite instance is a blink-and-you-miss-it moment involving Sonny and Sam's confrontation with a small army of Jack-O-Lanterns, which prompts the colonel/leader pumpkin to point out how their poorly carved pumpkin is rendered slow because of their lackluster knife-skills — the end result is Terry the stupid pumpkin, who gets two hilarious one-liners in before he's smashed. I would've liked a short film for that character before my next film.
While Black lends his voice to Slappy and makes a cameo during the third act, his presence as Stine is greatly missed here, especially seeing as the young actors — try as they might — don't have a real veteran on which to lean or work off of at any point during the film. This makes more unstable as a whole, as the monsters don't scare nor provide strong personalities. Again, the whole affair moves so fast that it suggests its creators weren't very invested in expanding the concept. If they don't seem to be buying it, why should we, I ask? back in 2015, and it's a film I still find myself letting play for at least a few minutes whenever I see it on cable. It arrived at a time when kid-friendly horror films were a rarity, and Nickelodeon-branded offerings like simply weren't cutting it and Tim Burton's proved more appropriate for his wheelhouse than it did for the broader, marginalized genre. Alas, arrives three years later with a few glaring omissions and shortcomings: for one, the original film's studio, Village Roadshow Pictures, has no involvement in this sequel, but rather Sony Pictures Animation (the proud makers of ) is the primary studio, and two, the previous film's scene-stealer Jack Black is relegated to a tardy, third-act cameo. It's like evaluating a product in time for a follow-up only to strip it of the most foundational components that made its predecessor so successful.