It’s either an in-joke or an irony that the not-terribly-terrifying villain of “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” is named The Grand Guignol, for Rachel Talalay’s perky, clean-cut kiddie-horror steers as far clear as possible of the macabre gore that moniker implies. In this tale of an underground babysitter syndicate dedicated to fighting the things that go bump in the night, even the monsters are cute: roly-poly, crayon-colored, off-brand uglydolls that look like Mike Wazowski’s less genetically blessed relatives. Yet cuteness supplants genuine charm in this Netflix-released adaptation of screenwriter Joe Ballarini’s YA book series, which may adequately distract very young ones on a socially distanced Halloween night, but offers ample room for improvement in the franchise it seeks to start.
It’s been 25 years since Talalay directed a theatrical feature in the chaotic, cult-bound “Tank Girl,” having cut her teeth bringing more style than required to such undistinguished horror filler as “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.” Since then, her wit and ingenuity has had little room to flex in TV assignments. “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” gives the director her largest canvas in a while, yet the film feels more programmed than imagined. Only in a handful of more subtly spooky creature effects — giant detached tentacles thrashing against glass tanks, a slithering “shadow monster” that expands and contracts like an elastic spider — does one sense an inventive horror mind at work amid the content-generating machinery.
The film at least has a promising lead in Tamara Smart, doing double YA-slop duty this year after a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s “Artemis Fowl,” and hopefully on her way to projects that better challenge her game, inquisitive screen presence. As Kelly, a high-school misfit and math whiz still perturbed by the nighttime hauntings of her childhood, she’s given little to do here but look progressively more wide-eyed as her adventures in babysitting get more complicated and CGI-heavy. Reluctantly assigned to mind Jacob (Ian Ho), the young, fearful son of her mother’s frosty boss Mrs. Zellman (Tamsen McDonough), while the adults attend the office Halloween party, she puts the boy to bed and settles in for a night of FaceTiming on the couch — at least, until she checks on Jacob to find him spirited away, and a diminutive but aggressive blue monster in his place.
It all points to a replay of her girlhood goosebumps, confessions of which have earned her the nickname “Monster Girl” from school bullies — and hardly get taken any more seriously by police when she reports Jacob’s disappearance. Sounds like a case for the fearsomely organized Order of the Babysitters, whose collective spidey-sense sends feisty peroxide-bobbed aide Liz (Oona Laurence) to Kelly on a nippy little scooter. She too has been through Kelly’s childhood terrors, and knows more about who’s behind them: the aforementioned Grand Guignol (an oddly listless Tom Felton), a nefarious harvester of children’s nightmares, who might be at least half as frightening as that sounds if his styling and delivery less precisely evoked Russell Brand in a moth-eaten Mad Hatter costume.
There’s enough here to spook the youngest and most spookable of viewers, but Talalay and her collaborators aren’t overly concerned with seeding vivid nightmares of their own. Even when darkness descends, cinematographer Gregory Middleton (recently an Emmy winner for more striking work on “Watchmen”) somehow keeps things bright and even, while the visual effects retain a garish plasticine quality even when dredging up supposed demons of the unconscious. Production designer David Brisbin has the most fun of anyone here, flirting with steampunk in the Grand Guignol’s gilded subterranean lair, and with decayed Old Hollywood ghostliness in one setpiece — involving a queenly counter-villain and hordes of ravenous cats — that comes close to inducing an actual chill before it finds an abrupt exit.
Nothing is allowed to disrupt the bouncy kids-against-the-world air of proceedings for longer than a second or two: Certainly, the film’s adult cast members don’t even try, hamming things up only in moderation and ceding any fizz and pep to their younger co-stars. Any remote sense of peril, meanwhile, is kept in check by the franchise-building cues and clues throughout. Certain monsters are bookmarked for later; ditto any personal development on the part of Kelly herself. “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” simply pushes forward insistently and efficiently in a spirit of organized, slushie-colored fun, which isn’t quite the same as a sense of humor, much less a sense of urgency. Talalay’s film babysits its audience well enough — but rare is the babysitter who really tries to enthral their charges.