Synopsis – A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R. L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Madison, Delaware.
My Take – As a kid growing up in the 90s, the only other stuff you would probably read other than comic books, especially on the persistence of your parents, would have been R.L. Stine‘s horror sagas known as Goosebumps. With over 400 million books sold, R.L. Stine‘s Goosebumps books are among some of the most popular books of all-time. They are the kind of bump in the night campfire stories that keep any kid up late with images of ghouls and talking ventriloquist dummies flashing across their minds. R.L. Stine‘s band of ghouls, goblins, & dummies left me with chills many years ago, along with many memorable stories to enjoy. They were always good, short reads, and straight to the point, with a small amount of heart, soul, and life lessons in between the mild scares. These characters and books were part of most people’s childhoods if you grew up in the ‘X’ or ‘Y’ generation. As a result I was quite happy when they had announced a movie based series. But my 1st dent in hopes was the casting of Jack Black, a generally likable comedian playing a fictionalized version of R.L. Stine himself. My only question – what is this guy doing in a family horror? My 2nd dent came, when it was announced the film would be helmed by director Rob Letterman, who had earlier directed family films like 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels, 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens & 2004’s Shark Tale. Why would this guy direct a horror film? The 3rd dent – the disappointing trailers! I’ll be honest, I did not like the trailers. They felt like a very generic and annoying family film with just monsters thrown in. However when the reviews started kicking in and seeing how positive they were, plus the decent opening at the BO, my expectations grew, and after seeing it I’m happy to report that this film is actually very fun! The film may seems like it would be best handled by an expert of family/horror films such as Joe Dante. Instead, they got the one who helmed Gulliver’s Travels, but for some reason, this movie pleasantly offers beyond than just another nostalgic cash grab. Fans of the series may wonder which of the books is the basis for the movie.
The answer is none of them & and all of them. Rather than adapting any one of Stine‘s books, which are, admittedly, relatively short , this film imagines a world in which Stine’s monsters come to life and terrorize a small town, while R.L. Stein himself, along with a few local teenagers, attempt to recapture the creatures and save the town. I won’t spoil the movie, except to say that, in the end, we as movie fans get a film that is as exciting and delightful as any of the books that inspired this story. Maybe to those who wants to linger more on the monsters from their favorite Goosebumps books may get disappointed since most of them are shoehorned as another monstrous villain to run away from. The filmmakers have opted for a greatest-hits mishmash that prioritizes the spectacle of a parade of monsters over any attempt at atmosphere or mystery. However, the film manages to tell a story of its own from its characters. Yes, their arcs can be by-the-numbers, or more specific, nothing original whatsoever, but it manages to find its own heart and sense of fun to its own story, which makes it quite entertaining and surprisingly heartwarming. The story follows Zach (Dylan Minnette) who has moved into the suburban town of Madison from New York with his recently widowed mother Gale (Amy Ryan). Zach gripes a lot about there being nothing to do in his new city until the mysterious home schooled neighbor girl (Odeya Rush) befriends him and he develops an interest in her. One night he’s led to believe that she may be imprisoned by her own father, “Mr. Shivers” (Jack Black) aka fictionalized version of R.L. Stine himself, and sneaks into her house with Champ (Ryan Lee), a socially awkward student who he has just met on the 1st day of school. They discovers a bookshelf full of Goosebumps manuscripts which they accidentally open & drop. Opening the first story releases a 10-foot tall abominable snowman who starts wreaking havoc throughout the town. Eventually, one by one, each story gets opened up with the books’ respective monsters coming to life trying to kill their creator, Stine. While film’s story may not be completely original, as the proceedings have some reminisce with Robin Williams‘ 1995 hit “Jumanji“, yet it still manages to feel fresh as it is fantastically well executed. The first act is the strongest of the entirety. Though the main protagonist, Zach, doesn’t have any special arc to focus on, but it gets better when he meets his new neighbor, Hannah, and their small innocent moments manages to bring easy charm with these characters. The rest of the characters are just downright kooky as they provide exaggeratedly delivered punchlines. What this film does really well, albeit stylistically inconsistent at times, is make us laugh. The humor works well on both adult and kid levels. It’s really a funny movie and it does so without becoming too irreverent. We still feel like something’s at stake, but the jokes help to lighten to the tone on the scarier elements of the film. I think one reason why live-action family films have failed in recent years is because filmmakers have lost touch with what makes kids laugh. They know kids want to see something really outrageous that they would only be able to see in animation, but I think this film may be on to something by aiming the jokes back up to the grownups and not dumbing them down. It doesn’t fall back on cheap slapstick or fart jokes to get laughs–it’s gets them with some pretty solid comedic timing and by finding cleaner versions of the humor that’s popular in recent R-rated comedies. The pacing of this film is brisk, it moves very fast and there isn’t a dull moment. It’s not scary if you’re a grown ass young adult like I am, but the entire time you appreciate the scares cause it would frighten you if you were a lot younger.
Lots of children were creeped out in the theater, and kudos to Rob Letterman and his crew for not compromising the scary elements. They really push the boundaries for a family/kid-friendly horror film. The film could have been an easy dumb kids story, but I’m surprised that the movie is very self aware of it stories and the jokes that they crack. They take several stabs at the writing of R.L. Stine and his work, yet manages to pay enough of a homage that it doesn’t seem too mean. The main cast is pretty close to stellar. You would think that there wouldn’t be too much layers within a film like this, but surprisingly there are some tender moments. Jack Black is superb. He plays R.L. Stine a little more on edge and a little more sinister. You can tell he was having fun in the role and cause of it you can fun as well. Stine’s characterization is also surprisingly well done, there isn’t a whole lot, but it’s enough to keep you intrigued. You discover he created these monsters out of loneliness and it provides some sympathy for him which is a nice touch. Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee make up an entertaining trio of young leads. Minnette as Zach plays it a little straight, but he carries the film very well, Rush is good as the romantic interest and mysterious girl Hannah, she and Minnette play off each other well, there are some uneven moments within the dialog involving some romantic scenes but for the most part is almost works. Ryan Lee provides the comic relief like he did in J.J. Abram‘s Super 8. Jillian Bell and Amy Ryan aren’t given too much to do as Zach’s aunt and mom, but they are involved within the story so it was nice to see that. I didn’t really care for the two officers in the film, they came off as forced comedy. As for the monsters, they rule. Obviously some have more to do than the others, but they are very cool to look at. At times you kinda wish that there were more monster moments. The Werewolf of Fever Swamp sequence at the market was quite entertaining, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena is causing mayhem, Dr. Brewer’s plant monsters from Stay Out of the Basement were cool, the lawn gnomes were freaky, there’s a mummy, a giant Praying Mantis, an evil clown, and zombies that are all in the mix. But the real star is Slappy. He is R.L. Stine’s darker personality embodied as a ventriloquist dummy, who is also voiced by Black, and is one heck of a villain. I would argue he steals the show. I loved that I got a sense of danger in the film, these monsters were actually trying to kill people in the film, so some stakes are involved and you come to care enough about the characters. On the whole ‘Goosebumps‘ is harmless entertaining family friendly adaption of a beloved series which is good enough to satisfy nostalgic adults & children of the new generation.
Director – Rob Letterman
Rated – PG
Run Time – 103 minutes