Abominable Snowman, Amy Ryan, Comedy, Delaware, Drama, Dylan Minnette, Fantasy, Giant praying mantis, Jack Black, Madison, Monsters, Odeya Rush, R.L. Stine, Review, Rob Letterman, Ryan Lee, Slappy, Wolfman
D: Rob Letterman / 103m
Cast: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell, Halston Sage, Ken Marino, Timothy Simons, Amanda Lund
There’s a moment in Goosebumps when Mr Shivers (Black), having already been rumbled as the writer R.L. Stine, tries to maintain his cover. Not believing him for a second, new neighbour Zach (Minnette) goads him by saying that he’s not as good a writer as Stephen King. Shivers/Stine rounds on Zach and in the process mentions that he’s sold way more books than “Steve”. It’s an odd moment in an otherwise straightforward, enjoyable imagining of Stine’s fictional world of monsters, and while it may be true, you can’t help but wonder if it’s there to give Stine some extra credibility now that he’s been adapted for the movies (not that he needs it). (And maybe it’s an issue for him.)
On the strength of this outing, Stine has little to be worried about. Although Goosebumps is a steadfastly homogenised horror fantasy for children – the zombies aren’t at all frightening, and the abominable snowman is played mostly for laughs – it has enough in the way of heavily stylised fantasy elements to keep its target audience happy for an hour and a half or so, and has been lucky enough to secure the services of Black as the “cursed” author. Black strikes just the right tone as an anxious, over-protective father-cum-author whose creations will spring fully formed and alive from the pages of his books if they’re opened (this doesn’t explain how his books have been published up til now, but it’s a great idea for a fantasy movie).
With Zach believing that his reclusive neighbour is mistreating his daughter, Hannah (Rush), he convinces a school friend, Champ (Lee) to help him break in to the house next door and ensure that Hannah is okay. Along the way, they discover bear traps in the basement and a bookcase full of Goosebumps novels that have locks on them. And in true children’s fantasy style, one of the books is opened, while the others all fall to the floor, leaving at least one of the books unlocked. The trouble is, this particular book features Slappy the ventriloquist’s dummy, and he’s the one monster that Stine doesn’t want to let out at all… and Slappy knows it.
Soon the town of Madison, Delaware is home to all sorts of rampaging monsters and creatures, and it’s down to Stine, Hannah, Zach and Champ to save the day by getting all of the author’s creations back in their books. But Slappy is one step ahead of them, and is making sure each book is burnt once the creature in it is released. This leaves the quartet with only one option: to make sure Stine has the time he needs to write a new story that involves all the monsters so that they can be returned to the new pages en masse.
There are the usual obstacles to their doing this, and the usual action sequences when they encounter any of the monsters – the lawn gnomes are particularly good – but it’s all done with an energy and a sense of fun that carries the movie along and doesn’t allow it to get bogged down by too many distractions. As mentioned before, Black is great as the author whose sense of responsibility has kept him moving from place to place and isolated his daughter in the process (though a plot twist two thirds in unfortunately cancels this out), while Rush, Minnette and Lee all play their standard teen characters with verve if not too much depth. Ryan is continually sidelined as Zach’s mother and high school vice principal, and Simons and Lund are given brief exposure as the town’s (apparently) lone law enforcement officers, with Lund’s gung ho approach bagging quite a few laughs.
In the hands of screenwriter Darren Lemke, Goosebumps sets out its stall quite early on and sticks to what is a safe formula: kids accidentally release monsters, team up with concerned adult, and find a way to save the day. But the movie avoids outstaying its welcome, though it does takes each new monstrous development in its stride, which is at a cost to the drama and the tension that should be inherent in the storyline. By ensuring that its target audience isn’t too frightened or worried, there’s no real sense of danger or peril, and each “threat” is neatly or quickly dealt with.
As you’d expect the special effects are woven seamlessly into the physical action, and there’s a pleasing sense of spectacle when the high school is besieged by all the creatures. Keeping things moving with an eye for the quirkier moments, Letterman allows his cast, both human and CGI, their individual moments to shine – Champ rescues the girl he likes from the wolfman, Slappy acknowledges his driving Stine’s car is compromised by not being able to reach the brakes – and includes enough adult humour to keep older viewers happy. And most of all, he manages to keep Zach and Hannah’s blossoming romance from becoming too mawkish or saccharine.
Rating: 7/10 – straying too close to formula to make it stand out from similar fare, Goosebumps is nevertheless a fun ride that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike; if there are to be any more adaptations of Stine’s work then that won’t be such a bad thing at all.