Overview: When all of the monsters from R.L. Stine’s books are released into the world, the new kid in town must team up with Stine and his daughter to put the creatures back where they belong. Columbia Pictures; 2015; Rated PG; 103 Minutes.
Viewer Beware: You’re not in for much of a scare with Rob Letterman’s take on R.L. Stine’s popular book series. Perhaps the PG rating and the fact that the film stars Jack Black gave that fact away, but those of us who grew up with the books and the TV show remember Stine’s works for their often surprisingly downbeat endings and page turning tension. They were children’s media to be certain, but they also pushed the boundaries in terms of what kids could handle. The film opts for a surprisingly different direction, one that caters to a more traditional and family-friendly sense of adventure. Despite some slight disappointment to be found in the property’s shift in tone, Goosebumps manages to redefine itself for a new generation.
While the film from director Rob Letterman does suffer a bit from the kind of heavy-handed emotional arcs and deceased parent syndrome that many live-action kids’ movies face, the story is really quite imaginative. Each monster the film introduces allows for Goosebumps to shift from horror sub-genre to sub-genre, resulting in a film that captures some of the mischievous spirit of Gremlins and the B-movie creature features of the 50s and 60s that informed so much of Stine’s repertoire. Despite the fact that Letterman never finds the tension necessary to elevate his feature to the likes of Joe Dante or Irvin Yeaworth, Goosebumps is consistently entertaining.
The Man in Black: Jack Black may not sound or look like Stine, excepting in dress, but he makes for a convincing kook, and a bit of a spook too. While Black’s broad, low-brow comedic sensibilities can often run overtime in adult comedies, he fits right in when he’s working with kids. In Goosebumps, Black possesses a kind of supercharged energy, that, when balanced with deliberate emotional insight, provides the beating heart of the film. There’s no phoning it on his part. Dylan Minnette and Odeya Rush also give charming performances as courageous and love-struck teenagers Zach and Hannah, but it’s Ryan Lee’s performance as their cowardly friend Champ who stands out amongst the trio. Not every joke works (though the kids in my showing were losing it) and it’s hard not to cringe a little at every reference to twerking, or YouTube, or teen speak, but there are some wonderfully clever writing jokes that will connect with older viewers.
Monster Blood: The monsters themselves, set free to romp around and create reparable destruction, are well designed, though the restraint of the budget does bleed through at times. While we see a lot of Stine’s creations, most are relegated to the background, and only a select few are given focus and set-pieces of their own. The dummy Slappy, long the face of Scholastic’s property, is given a menacing flair for the dramatic and cornball jokes by Jack Black’s vocal performance. But the most rewarding aspect of seeing all of these creatures together isn’t their placement, but how well the film makes clear the emotional ties between authors and their creations. Slappy is the dark reflection of Stine, his own distrust of humanity set loose. While there’s no subtext to this relationship or the theme of facing one’s own demons, Goosebumps manages to deliver pretty impactful stuff for aiming at such a young audience.
Overall: If you’re holding onto your childhood, Goosebumps may not be exactly what was wanted, but it’s a fun and accessible entry into the severely lacking kids’ horror selection. And not to worry, the movie continues Stine’s tradition of delivering a twist that few will see coming, but the biggest twist of all may be that Goosebumps is actually pretty good.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures