Fun-loving teenager Skyler Lewis (Olivia Holt) knows no fear and has amazing acrobatic skills, but all she really wants to do is rock out with the band led by Ryan (Luke Benward), her high school crush. It is Halloween and Sky is overjoyed when Ryan asks her to front the band for the party tonight at the allegedly haunted McCrae Mansion. Unfortunately, Sky’s overprotective parents won’t let her out on Halloween. What Sky doesn’t know is Mom (Jennifer Aspen) and Dad (actor-writer Brian Palermo, who penned the hilarious animated comedy Hysteria!) are really monster hunters who keep an arsenal of super-weapons along with captive ghouls in their hi-tech basement. Locked in the house, Sky disables their home security system and accidentally frees a gaggle of ghouls headed vaporous witch Deimata (Tracy Dawson) who plans to kill her parents and eat her soul. Aided by her timid and terrified best friend Sadie (Kerris Dorsey), Sky must overcome her newfound fear in order to rescue Mom and Dad, recapture the monsters and, of course, ensure her pop performance goes down a storm.
A Halloween treat from the Disney Channel, this is basically Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the junior high crowd with a science fiction approach to battling the supernatural that deliberately evokes Ghostbusters (1984). Disney did something similar with their Chinese wu xia fantasy-themed Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2005), another coming-of-age fable about accepting responsibility. With goofy ghouls and wisecracking witches, Girl vs. Monster plays it safe and never tries to be as quirky as its Joss Whedon-scripted inspiration, replacing Buffy’s subversive agenda with yet another Disney heroine with dreams of pop stardom. Hence the abundance of bland pop tunes (although reoccurring love theme “You Had Me At Hello” is infernally catchy and actually quite sweet) that prefigure the groan-inducing twist wherein Sky discovers she can subdue the monsters by rocking out.
But coming from Annie DeYoung, screenwriter of Stardust (2010) and Princess Protection Programme (2009), this pulls off some distinctive flourishes that elevate it to the rank of rather likeable. Among these a priceless gag wherein the imprisoned-for-decades Deimata is aghast to learn Stephen King no longer writes horror novels and Twilight (2008) has popularised vampires as mopey romantic types. More importantly, DeYoung makes fear itself the central theme of the story. Sky has never been frightened until her first confrontation with Deimata. Upon learning the truth about her ghost-busting destiny, she sticks her fingers in her ears and sings “la-la-la!” DeYoung fashions the story into an ingenious allegory examining how adolescence can turn even vibrant, confident kids into awkward, self-conscious teenagers riddled with insecurities. In a neat conceit, while the heroine buckles, hitherto scaredy-cat Sadie grabs a monster blaster and gets stuck in. In spite of her fears she sticks by Sky and spurs her on to heroism. The script has one creepy idea, wherein every kid has their own personal monster out there waiting to get them, that flowers with the subplot where cowardly Henry (Brendan Meyer) must overcome a killer scarecrow (Stefano Giulianetti) to deliver vital monster-slaying equipment to Sky, and the notion that fear makes monsters, not the other way around, proves potent.
Stuart Gillard debuted with the much-maligned Blue Lagoon rip-off Paradise (1982) and made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993) but has latterly proven a Disney stalwart with such genre-friendly concoctions as Rocket Man (1997), Twitches (2005) and Avalon High (2010) an oddball re-imagining of the Arthurian romance in an American high school. His colourful comic book visuals add to an overall sense of fun and he stages action scenes that are quite lively by kiddie TV movie standards, particularly the rooftop laser battle climax. Actress-singer Olivia Holt, star of Disney’s karate sitcom Kickin’ It, proves a peppy and appealing heroine but the real find is Kerris Dorsey. She brings an affecting vulnerability and nuanced sweetness to a well-scripted role. Elsewhere, Katherine McNamara brings welcome gusto to her role as the mean girl demonically transformed into a glam ghoul in rouge who upstages Sky at her pop concert. Is that what passes for evil among teen girls these days?