Goosebumps is a fun, if frantic, scary adventure for kids that even captures the spirit of R.L. Stine’s original books.
Goosebumps begins with teenager Zachary “Zach” Cooper (Dyan Minnette) and his mom Gale (Amy Ryan) having just moved to the small town of Madison, Delaware, where Gale will start her new job as vice principal at the local high school. Zach is quickly smitten with his new girl next door, the teenaged Hannah (Odeya Rush), but her mysterious father (Jack Black) – known by the locals as “Mr. Shivers” – is a decidedly antisocial and strange man, who insists on home-schooling Hannah and is quick to warn Zach to stay away from the pair of them. Zach grows increasingly suspicious of “Shivers” thereafter, until one night when Zach witnesses a fight between Hannah and her dad – but is unable to prove it to the police.
Zach then gets nerdy newfound acquaintance Champ (Ryan Lee) to help him break into the “Shivers” residence, leading the pair to discover that “Mr. Shivers” is really famed Goosebumps author R.L. Stine. However, in the process of doing that, Zach and Champ also unwittingly unleash the various creatures imagined by Stine – which, it turns out, the author was (magically) keeping locked up in his original manuscripts, after they inexplicably began to spring to life over the years. It’s then up to Zach, Champ, Hannah, and Stine to save the day and return the author’s (literal) demons to the printed page where they belong.
Directed by Rob Letterman, whose previous collaborations with actor Jack Black include the animated Shark Tale and the live-action Gulliver’s Travels, Goosebumps is a fun, if frantic, scary adventure for kids that even captures the spirit of R.L. Stine’s original books. The film will have some appeal for nostalgic adults who grew up reading Stine’s supernatural horror novels, but it should be made clear: Goosebumps the movie is first and foremost intended for the middle-school crowd and younger – as it ought to be, at that.
The Goosebumps screenplay by Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After, Jack the Giant Slayer) – with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Agent Cody Banks) credited for the screen story – borrows story and character elements from many a previous film, especially 1990s kid adventure movies like Hocus Pocus and Jumanji. There are times when Goosebumps broaches mature themes and ideas with a clear subtext (such as how Stine spent so much time imagining monsters – in order to battle his loneliness – that eventually they became real), but they don’t go on for too long before the movie then retreats to safer and more formulaic narrative ground. This allows the film to keep things breezy, but at the same time it undermines the writers’ efforts to incorporate more clever and poignant storytelling in with the irreverent horror/comedy.
Goosebumps flows along at a frequently hyperactive pace, combining a variety of kid-friendly monster scares with intentionally “bad” jokes and cheesy humor (including, the usual ham-fisted jabs taken at teenagers and their love of social media), to better keep the mood light. Elements like the kooky score by Danny Elfman work best at infusing the film with a playful spirit, as does a cast that is game for the various silly scary scenarios that they find themselves in. The creature visual effects by Moving Pictures Company (The Martian, Pan) are fittingly threatening, yet cartoony, in design – though, as a result of the film’s budget ($58 million), the CGI monster effects are just serviceable on the whole.
Letterman and his director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe (Warm Bodies, Blue Jasmine) likewise stage the film’s various set pieces and action sequences in a non-flashy but satisfactory manner, thus keeping the spotlight on the antics of the colorful Goosebumps monsters instead of the camerawork or any stylistic flourishes. Goosebumps is a visually dark film on the whole (since most of it takes place at night), but the creatures that get the most screen time – including Slappy the ventriloquist dummy (as voiced by Black), who serves as the film’s main antagonist – are more brightly colored to stand out in contrast. There’s enough in the way of pop-out effects and action sequences (like those involving giant monsters) that benefit from 3D for moviegoers to justify spending extra money to see the film in that format, but Goosebumps can be enjoyed just as much viewed in 2D.
Jack Black avoids relying on his familiar comedy schtick in Goosebumps, instead delivering what is an appropriately hammy, but straight-faced and multi-faceted performance as the film’s off-beat version of R.L. Stine (note: keep your eyes peeled for the real author’s cameo) – while the decision to have Black voice Slappy helps make the latter an effective dark foil to Stine. By comparison, Dylan Minnette (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), Odeya Rush (The Giver), and Ryan Lee (Super 8) all play stock kids movie archetypes, but bring enough personality and charm to the table to make their familiar characters likable. Similarly, talented character actors like Amy Ryan (The Office) and Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) are under-used, but make the most of their small roles as Zach’s mom and zany aunt, respectively.
Goosebumps, like its popular source material, doesn’t boast fine craftsmanship, nor does it provide a subversive take on long-established supernatural horror tropes; rather, it gives them a kids-friendly spin that illustrates the fun of scary storytelling – and provides just enough substance (to go with the bells and whistles) to be more than a glorified distraction. The film isn’t aimed at those who grew up reading Goosebumps novels in the 1990s, but some “children of the ’90s” may enjoy the chance to revisit the series all the same; and who knows, the movie might even inspire a new generation to go check out Stine’s original books.
Goosebumps is now playing in U.S. theaters in 2D and 3D. It is 103 minutes long and is Rated PG for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor.
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