I’m exactly the right age to have a LOT of memories of Goosebumps, the horror novel series for young readers. I won’t bore you with my personal anecdotes about them, except that my brother had a wall calendar in our bedroom with Goosebumps cover art for each month and the month containing the art for “Night of the Living Dummy” was the worst month of my life.
I was pretty interested when the first trailers for Rob Letterman’s film adaptation premiered. Maybe not “excited”, because I’ve been nostalgia-ed out these past few years, but interested enough to see the film. I was expecting a rather weak comedy-horror film for kids (it’s PG) with an intolerable Jack Black and lots of bad CGI. While I got a little bit of that, yeah, the reality is that Goosebumps turned out to be a pretty fun kids flick. I’d say it’s as much a love letter to The Monster Squad and The Gate as it is to R.L. Stine’s novels.
Zach (Dynlan Minnette) hates everything about the new town he’s moved to… except his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush). Unfortunately, she’s being closely guarded by her recluse father, R.L. Stine (Jack Black). After a misunderstanding that finds Zach and his nerdy friend Champ (Ryan Lee) breaking into Stine’s home, the kids accidentally open a shelf full of cursed Goosebumps manuscripts… each containing the monsters featured in the novel.
Now, Zach, Hannah and Champ have to team up with Stine to re-capture all the monsters before they destroy the whole town.
Letterman’s film doesn’t adapt any single installment in the Goosebumps series, but pays homage to all of them with an original idea that lets every creature come out to play. The setup reminded quite a bit of films like The Gate, The Monster Squad or The Lost Boys (which owe their own debt to the non-supernatural The Goonies). It’s that old retro-80s sub-genre of preteen horror films where kids have to team up to stop an army of monsters by themselves, usually in the suburbs.
The main characters, admittedly, aren’t very interesting but exist mostly to get us from one monster to another as the plot coasts along. The first half hour is especially bad, as it’s just one lame cliche and stock character after another, introduced in rapid succession as a matter of obligation, not so much enthusiasm.
There’s the main character who hates this small town he’s just moved to because it isn’t as cool as the Big City. There’s the spitfire girl next door who teaches him about Being Different and Thinking Outside of the Box. And of course there’s the nerdy, clumsy, useless sidekick kid who embarrasses himself throughout the film for comic relief but ultimately does something heroic in the end.
I mean, the actors all play their parts well and get into the roles, but these are not complicated or even remotely interesting characters. But that’s fine, because we all came for the monsters, anyway.
The original Goosebumps series had, like, 60-something books (and I think it got revived at some point and received even more). So with that in mind, not ALL the monsters are in the film and the majority of them appear only in blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameos. This is where criticism comes down to subjective opinion, because we all have our favorite monsters from the books and nobody’s going to agree on which is the best.
So with that in mind, many of my favorite monsters either don’t appear or only merit the quick cameo (the Scarecrow from “The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight” deserved so much more!). However, certain monsters get a disproportionately large role menacing the cast all throughout the film, appearing over and over. The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and the giant mantis (from “A Shocker on Shock Street”) get most of the screentime and it can feel a bit unfair.
The most iconic Goosebumps villain, though, DOES warrant a spot as the film’s primary antagonist: Slappy, the Living Dummy. He’s played mostly for laughs, but it was good to see at least ONE of my favorite monsters (the one that terrorized me from that wall calendar for a whole month) get a major role. He acts as the ring leader of all the monsters, unleashing and coordinating them as they terrorize the town. Jack Black’s voice-over for the character was pretty good, too. Not as scary as he should be, but like I said, they don’t really go for scares with him.
And that’s another thing I suppose I should bring up: They don’t go for scares AT ALL in this movie. It’s much more of an adventure film than a horror flick and all the monsters appear either for humor or action sequences. I won’t say that the film “failed” to scare since it doesn’t actually “try” to scare. While the lighter tone might disappoint those expecting a kid’s horror movie, the action-oriented focus works for the setup and it winds up being a fun movie, anyway.
The army of monsters are colorful and diverse; I love all the weird variety to them. The effects are a mix of practical and CG, though the monsters we see most often (the Snowman, the Mantis and the Werewolf) are exclusively CG. Some look better than others (the Werewolf is pretty dodgy). The practical effects are confined mostly to crowd fillers, though I was pleased that Slappy remained an actual dummy throughout the film. Others, like the aliens from “Invasion of the Body Squeezers” are a mix of practical and CG-animation. While overall it’s CG heavy, there is a nice mix in there.
Goosebumps is a kids movie; there’s no two ways around it. They compromise to maintain the PG rating, so no one dies in the film and when the monsters are blown up or dismembered, by turn to ink instead of gory chunks. But to Letterman’s credit, his compromises work where he employs them (though the kid that got nabbed by the Mantis should’ve been toast) and it’s not like I walked into a PG flick expecting Cannibal Holocaust.
Now for the paragraph about Jack Black. He’s fine in the movie. I don’t count myself among his biggest fans and he annoys me, sometimes, but he plays an eccentric and energetic R.L. Stine. Nothing like the real Stine (who makes a cameo), but he does his own thing with the part and provides a decent foil to the teenage stars. Whenever Zach gets too serious or Champ gets too annoying, Black runs interference and you’ll be glad he’s there.
Goosebumps is a pretty good kids movie. Its weaknesses dwell mostly in the unbearable opening half hour of cliches, some occasionally shoddy CGI and perhaps the lack of scares (or even attempts at scares). What you do get is a very fast-paced (after the first half hour) and fun flick for kids with a boatload of weird, crazy monsters. I think it’s going to be a highlight of the Halloween movie season.
And as an aside, the end credits sequence was probably the best part of the movie. It’s an animated tribute to the unforgettable Goosebumps cover art by Tim Jacobus (and is probably the only part of the film that’s even a little spooky). Unfortunately, the current editions of the Goosebumps books have updated cover art, so if you run down to Barnes & Noble after leaving the theater, prepare for a pang of disappointment.