After having scared entire generations of children with novels and a television show, Goosebumps has finally made its debut on the silver screen. Based on the kid-friendly horror stories of R. L. Stine and directed by Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens), Goosebumps has always ridden the line between dealing in the subjects of nightmares without actually giving any, and this adaptation is no different.
When New York teen, Zach (Dylan Minnette), moves to the small town of Madison, he becomes fascinated by the mysterious girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush), and her even stranger, overly protective father (Jack Black). Yet, after hearing startling screams and breaking into their home with new best friend, Champ (Ryan Lee), they discover that there’s a reason her father’s been so secretive: he’s actually R. L. Stine, author of the ‘Goosebumps’ series and all of his monstrous creations are real! To make matters worse, Zach has just accidentally released all of them from the magical manuscripts that held them and it’s up to him, his new friends, and Stine to capture them all before they wreak havoc on the world.
The premise of having the film set around a fictional Stine rather than focusing on one or two of the original stories is a fun idea that brings some big positives but also some fairly apparent negatives. Putting characters in a somewhat mirrored world of our own allows them to be in on the joke with the audience of living through some of Stine’s most horrid creations rather than being unaware, and also provides for some fun meta-moments. There’s also the added bonus of bringing in so many of these monsters, so that the full catalogue of Stine’s work is on display rather than just a few of the more iconic creepers.
The downside of this though, is that the second half of the film’s plot becomes fairly light as a result. The main antagonist is the ventriloquist puppet, Slappy (voice by Black, too) who appears to be the unappointed leader of the ghouls, and organises them in a revolt against their creator. But from here on out there is little else motivating the story, apart from the rather superficially mentioned revenge that Slappy wants against Stine. The result is a series of set pieces that the characters hobble between to get away, and while amusing to watch, leaves one with a rather empty feeling. Even a fairly heartfelt climax fails to fill, which perhaps would not have been the case if we hadn’t just spent an hour gorging on the film equivalent of junk food.
Minnette (Prisoners) has perfected the teen-lead, and offers enough heart to keep you engaged, but theirs a certain blandness that comes along with the Disney-fied persona that could make his character interchangeable with almost any other children’s movie-of-the-week protagonist. This does cause some contrast with Black (School of Rock) though, who hams it to the max as Stine, and becomes slightly cartoonish against the straight playing teen. Still, his over the top performance will be enough to entertain most of the younger crowd.
Rush (The Giver) and Lee (This is 40) make for some nice tag alongs, with Lee especially good as the goofy companion. Appearances by Amy Ryan (Birdman) as Zach’s means-well mum, and Jillian Bell (Workaholics) as the quirky aunt, are also a treat, although neither get the deserved screen time, especially Bell who has some nice chemistry with Black. While obviously fitting in with Stine’s normal penchant to remove parents from his stories through having them remain disbelieving or conveniently absent, it feels like more than a mistake to exclude them from the fun when they are evidently some of the films more interesting characters.
Visually most of the monsters look great on the screen, and while they’re clearly CGI, it works with the sparkling gloss that the film’s presented with. The film has some fairly funny moments, and does well enough to provide humour for the older audiences in attendance (some mentions of The Shining are particularly funny) but with such rich material, it’s a shame that Letterman didn’t push it even further. The film also skirts around the main issue of why Stine’s manuscripts are so magical in the first place, and never taps into what would surely have been an interesting character’s past.
Surely, Goosebumps will hit a nerve with its core audience, the 10 and under crowd, but older audiences looking for a nostalgic fix may be left wanting.