There is something unsettling about the Rob Letterman directed “Goosebumps,” and it isn’t the scares that it offers. At first glance, the new film about the monsters R.L. Stine creates in his books coming to life feels like an updated “Jumanji” crossed with the self-awareness of “The Lego Movie,” but when one takes a second look, there is something off about it on multiple levels.
The movie stars Jack Black as a fictionalized version of Stine, one whose stories have the ability to come to life due to a magical typewriter. He has a teenage daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush), whom he keeps locked away and when a new family moves in next door, the teenage son, Zach (Dylan Minnette) can’t help but wonder why she isn’t allowed out.
It is actually a half-hour or so before the film gets to the notion of the Goosebumps books and things truly start. Zach and his new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) accidentally release the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and then Slappy the dummy is freed and he, in turn frees the rest. It happens so incredibly quickly once it starts that it feels like “Goosebumps” jumps ahead by several chapters.
Slappy is our lead villain, he is in charge of the monsters, but why he is remains unclear. What Slappy wants is unclear. He is the big bad and he has no character, no motivation, no nothing. He is just bad because Stine wrote him that way because Stine writes scary stories. Slappy is the most well-rounded, well thought out of the villains and is two dimensional.
Part of the issue here is that the film trades almost entirely on the audience’s knowledge of the books. If you have read any of the Slappy stories, you get who he is and why he does what he does. If you read the Abominable Snowman story, you understand him, and the same is true for the Werewolf of Fever Swamp and the rest. If you haven’t read them (or haven’t thought of the werewolf or snowman since their original publication 20+ years ago), they’re just generic bad guys.
Herein lies another problem. While I am too old to have read the books when they were released, my daughter is just slightly too young. That makes it feel like the goal is to hit twentysomethings who remember reading the books or watching the TV series and who are looking for a hit of nostalgia, but the leads play young which may make them unappealing to twentysomethings.
Also an issue is the film’s pacing. Thirty minutes to the first Goosebumps bit and then it’s quickly all the monsters all at once. There is no sensible building of the issue, Darren Lemke’s screenplay from Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s story feels like it exists solely to put as many of Stine’s monsters in the film as possible in order to amp up the nostalgia factor. Many of these monsters are only momentarily visible, making it almost a game (“Hey, was that…” “Oh my god, did you see…” “I love that they threw in…”) and nothing more.
When the movie does end, the whole town seems to have instantly forgotten about the issue, despite the insanely massive amounts of destruction and random freezing of human beings and whatever deaths may have occurred. Don’t ask how or if any of this was dealt with, the movie doesn’t care, it showed you your favorite Goosebumps monsters from way back when and now that it has, it’s done.
One fascinating, and important, thing to note is that while there may be serious problems with both plot and pacing, “Goosebumps” almost overcomes them. It is raucous and loud and generally amusing. It does give a few too many nudges to the audience asking that viewers acknowledge its cleverness, but much of it still works.
The kudos here go to Jack Black who, while regularly on the verge of going over the top, manages to hold it all in, delivering an almost (but not quite) understated performance as Stine. While Minnette is the lead and the film attempts to give him some backstory, but anything deeper than a surface attraction to Hannah is instantly jettisoned once the monsters from the books comes alive. Zach becomes nothing more than a generic new kid who clearly is going to be super popular—and must have been super popular back home—but just hasn’t been at the school long enough. Champ is pure comic sidekick and Hannah exists for little reason other than the film’s need for a young woman and Zach’s need to explore what’s going on inside the Stine house. Amy Ryan is good as Zach’s mom, but why exactly she is here is unclear, and the same is true for Ken Marino’s character, one of the teachers at the school.
Even so, the rollercoaster of it all is going to be enough to satisfy many, especially if they don’t look too deeply, don’t think too hard, and are already emotionally invested in the franchise. Others may have some fun, but will leave with the sense that with just a little more work on the story, “Goosebumps” could have been something memorable.
photo credit: Sony Pictures