Director: Rob Letterman
Starring: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell
“Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts. The beginning. The middle. And the twist.”
For those like me who were born during the nineties and love to read, the Goosebump series holds a place in our hearts nestled right in between Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse. The monsters from the original series that truly stuck with me were those of It Came From Under the Sink, Welcome to Camp Nightmare, Monster Blood, and The Haunted Mask. Unfortunately, the frights from these novellas don’t make it into the film’s plotline, but the monsters that do are no disappointment. In fact, overall the film adaptation of the popular series is a pleasant surprise. R. L. Stine’s monsters are brought to life beautifully, and Jack Black does an impressive run as the novelist. There are most certainly a couple of tacky clichés included, but the film is full of qualities that earn it some redemption.
Goosebumps begins with the introduction of high-schooler Zach Cooper (Minnette), who has just moved to the small town of Madison, Delaware with his recently widowed mother (Ryan). Zach is feeling uneasy about the move, as it’s a big shift from his previous life in bustling New York. When he meets his pretty and mysterious next-door-neighbor Hannah (Rush), Zach is frustrated to learn that her father (Black) won’t let her see him. One night, Zach and his socially awkward friend Champ (Lee) break into Hannah’s house, where they find locked Goosebumps manuscripts. Just after Hannah finds the invaders, they accidentally open The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, releasing the titular monster into real life. During the ensuing events, Champ correctly realizes that Hannah’s father must be R. L. Stine, the writer of the Goosebumps series. Unbeknownst to the trio, Slappy the ventriloquist dummy from Night of the Living Dummy has also been released from the pages, and he decides to exact revenge on Stine for keeping him locked up by releasing every monster Stine has created to terrorize the town and kill him.
From what I’ve seen of Jack Black, especially in films like School of Rock and Saving Silverman, Black is one of those comedic actors who emulates a version of himself as his characters. Although this is usually entertaining, it’s definitely not something that I consider good acting. Black’s character in Goosebumps is different, in a great way. With slicked back hair, thick-lensed glasses, a peculiar accent, and a developed sense of self-gratification, Black’s (very) fictionalized version of Stine is both creepy and admittedly extremely amusing. There’s still very much a trace of the “Jack Black Personality”, but it doesn’t consume the entire performance, and Black allows Stine to be a unique character. Also, the younger actors are quite refreshing. It’s very nice to see that Hollywood has taken a break from trying to pass off actors in their late twenties as sixteen-year-olds. In particular, Ryan Lee impresses with his attempts to bring some dimension to his formulaic “nerdy best friend” character, with some screams and facial expressions nearly on par with those of Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley. On the other hand, although both Minnette and Rush deliver satisfactory performances, they do the bare minimum and go no further than being mere tolerable protagonists.
Of course, some of the best characters in the film are the monsters. These creatures are scary in a surreal way, and some more than others at that. The CGI is used to produce frighteningly accurate versions of many of the book series’ monsters, with Slappy, the Giant Praying Mantis, and Fifi the Poodle being especially well imagined. With that being said, Goosebumps isn’t actually scary, contrary to what the name would have you believe. In an interview with Slate Magazine, Stine called Goosebumps “mostly a tease”, and that’s exactly what the film feels like. Some of the monsters are sure to creep viewers out, but for the duration of the film, there’s never a true sense of fear. With the knowledge that it’s a children’s movie, as well as familiarity with how the Goosebumps stories usually turn out, the audience doesn’t doubt that the ending will be a happy one. From this aspect, Goosebumps is an entertaining film, especially with its fast pace.
One of the most challenging parts about making films for children is that the story so often has a predictable ending. There are so movies that people love as children, but then realize are actually terrible in adulthood. Despite having a hole in the plot here and a clichéd character there, Goosebumps won’t become one of these film, and I’d say it’s likely that it will become a Halloween-time kid’s favorite.
Bottom Line: Goosebumps is a film that relies on archetypes, but it’s still a fun watch with several laughs and good performances.