Studio: Sony Pictures
Director: Rob Letterman
Writer: Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Producer: Deborah Forte, Neal H. Moritz
Stars: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell, Halston Sage, Ken Marino, Timothy Simons, Amanda Lund
Imaginary monsters from the “Goosebumps” books of R.L. Stine come to life and terrorize a small town.
R.L. Stine’s original “Goosebumps” line debuted as I began my final year of high school and concluded after I graduated college. Being outside the target demo during its heyday means the series didn’t play a part in my horror upbringing like it did for younger fans raised in the 90s. That leaves me to come at the feature film adaptation with an eye of casual curiosity and no preexisting nostalgia for the “Goosebumps” brand.
Despite having never read a word Stine has written, living in a subterranean cave would be required to have no knowledge whatsoever of his monstrous success with the Scholastic book series. Its pop culture presence combined with bookstore strolls past those distinctive covers ensures I’m still well aware of personalities like Slappy the dummy and titles such as “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes.”
Knowing these broad strokes of what mainstream minds associate most with “Goosebumps” leads me to conclude that the movie hits every theme, note, and nuance that makes the name resonate no matter the viewer’s age or familiarity with the content. And Darren Lemke’s script from a treatment by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski creates a clever way to work all of Stine’s key creature creations into one single story.
Jack Black stars as a fictional incarnation of R.L. Stine. Black is in on the joke of how fatty his ham slab performance is, though that doesn’t exonerate the distractingly odd accent put into the part. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jack Black role without at least one questionable characterization choice. It’s just curious that he opts to add more flourish to his human half than to his voice as the sentient ventriloquist dummy.
Selling 400 million books worldwide doesn’t give Stine the type of luxury yacht life you might expect. The cost of having a mind mad enough to invent this many monsters is that his imagination is so incredible, his creations literally come to life.
Stine has been able to keep the beasts locked inside magical manuscripts by writing a book for each one. But when his daughter Hannah takes an interest in new next-door neighbor Zach, the teens inadvertently open one of the terrible tomes. This sets off a chain reaction that sees the small town of Madison, Delaware engulfed in an invasion of mutants, mummies, crazed clowns, and furry freaks.
“Goosebumps” has three levels to its comedy, and two of them work. Perhaps not an overwhelming majority, but the ratio evens itself out to keep the film good-humored more often than not.
Falling flat are noodle-armed stabs at trendy laughs. Like the high school’s vice-principal erroneously assuming a twerking joke will endear her to teens, “Goosebumps” elicits cringing groans from references to YouTube or an oblivious aunt obsessed with bedazzling men’s clothes. These are the kinds of gags mistaken for topical or original that even kids roll their eyes at as overdone.
Better snickers come from meta-humor winks, like Stine having written too many books to remember, or the author’s eternal grudge against being regarded as a poor man’s Stephen King. When the movie isn’t dating itself, situational humor shines, particularly in instances of an overzealous training officer confusing proper police procedure in adorably dangerous ways. Director Rob Letterman excels at staging actors so these funnier bits feel fresh even when certain scripting sounds stale.
“Goosebumps” takes additional knocks from keeping a too full plate of undercooked comic relief. It’s a waste of talent to have Ken Marino occupying a collective one-minute of screen time in a role unrelated to the main arc. Deleted scenes probably exist where the secondary player slate has a beefed-up presence, yet in the final cut, they are so inconsequential it is surprising their characters bother having names.
Scares come mostly from sudden crashes or bird wings flapping, which is fine for a PG rating. Though for a family-friendly film, there is a fair deal of frightening fun to be found in the nearly nonstop onslaught of freeze ray-firing aliens, fanged Venus flytraps, and levitating demon dogs. “Goosebumps” cooks its heroes with a surprising amount of fire, even a little bit of blood, and all of it is appropriately amplified by the melodic hyperactivity of a Danny Elfman score.
A personal growth metaphor finds a way to put a little meaning behind the mania in the meanwhile. It’s a fitting one too, about not immersing one’s self too deeply in fantasy. It is hardly a misguided message to remind an increasingly second screen-dependent youth culture to stop for a rose sniff, though the need for a happier ending negates that sentiment somewhat with a last-minute switcheroo.
“Goosebumps” manages to be cute without being cuddly, and broadly appealing without dulling every edge. The movie may boil down to a lot of colorful noise meant mainly for easy-to-eat entertainment, but the main selling point of the source material was not exactly narrative intricacy or multifaceted depth, either.
Review Score: 75