Goosebumps (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Rob Letterman
Written by: Darren Lemke
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee & Jack Black
Music: Danny Elfman
Release Date: February 5th 2016
When it comes to adapting a franchise like “Goosebumps” to film…where does one start? The children’s book series by R.L. Stein had 62 books published between 1992 and 1997, with dozens of creatures, stories and protagonists ripe for adaptation. We also have the successful 1990s TV series which has even more stories worth adapting. This was the problem that befell director Tim Burton in the late 90s when he tried to adapt the books into a feature film; which book do you adapt and which monster do you bring to life?
Why not all of them?
What we have with this ‘Goosebumps‘ re-imagining is a faux biographical film about R.L. Stein and all of his creations coming to life in a ‘Jumanji‘-esque family-friendly adventure. That’s not a bad approach, but it could also backfire similarly to how ‘Pixels‘ did last year. Does ‘Goosebumps‘ give families the appropriate amount of frights or should these creatures have remained on the page?
Zach Cooper (Minnette) moves to the small town of Madison, Delaware with his mother Gale, both looking for a fresh start. But living next door is Mr. Shivers (Black) and his daughter Hannah (Rush) and Zach believes that Mr. Shivers is not what he seems. When he hears screams coming from next door, Zach gets his new friend Champ (Lee) to help him investigate and when they get inside the house they discover dozens of “Goosebumps” manuscripts and when they’re opened the creatures from inside the books come out to wreck havoc. Mr. Shivers is actually R.L. Stein and it’s up to the four to put all of the creatures back into the books and save Madison from complete destruction.
The first 20/30 minutes of ‘Goosebumps‘ reeks of affection for 1990s horror and high-school tropes. From the main character being named “Zach”, to everything revolving around a high-school dance, a dorky best friend desperate to get a girl etc. ‘Goosebumps‘ is hardly a commentary or an evolution on these well-worn tropes, but it parrots them well and while this devotion to formula gets ‘Goosebumps‘ off to a pretty slow and shaky start (it’s a good 40 minutes before the actual conflict is revealed and the move properly begins) once the movie actually gets going, it’s a fun thrill-ride.
That’s the key phrase here; “thrill-ride”. Even though I’m more than twice the age of the target demographic, I don’t see much here that could potentially keep kids up at night (with one exception which I’ll get to later). Oh, there are a few moments that are a couple of notches down from ‘Gremlins‘-iconography like a scene where a group of evil Garden Gnomes try to drag R.L. Stein into an oven and one or two jump-scares, but due to the movie’s emphasis on elaborate, C.G.I. spectacle and brightly lit action set-pieces, there’s not much here to actually give kids Goosebumps. That’s not a complaint, just to clarify. I just thought it was worth mentioning to any potential parents out there.
What we have here is a “Greatest Hits” compilation of R.L. Stein’s work in a heavily segmented fashion as the four-some encounter these creatures one-at-a-time until the grand finale. We have “The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena”, the aforementioned Gnomes from “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes”, the invisible boy from “My Best Friend is Invisible”, “The Werewolf of Fever Swamp” and more. It’s safe to say that fans of the “Goosebumps” books will find one of their favourites in the movie and they may even be privvy to a plot-twist later on in the movie that you’ll only see coming if you’re familiar with the series. It’s a nice way to reward fans and the twist works in the singular context of a stand-alone movie so it’s the best of both worlds.
And then we have Slappy the Dummy.
Okay, let me level with you here; I hate dummies. I have an incredibly high threshold in terms of scares and it’s very rare for a horror movie to scare me but…Slappy the Dummy from “Goosebumps” has ALWAYS been the exception to that rule. There’s just something about living dummies and puppets that makes my skin crawl. I don’t know what it is, it’s probably an irrational fear, but that’s just how my brain is wired (I don’t ever recall being traumatised by one in real life so who knows where this has come from).
But Slappy is the main villain of ‘Goosebumps‘ and is the key to a lot of the film’s supposed thematic elements. I say “supposed” because while he does speechify about him and R.L. Stein being a reflection of one another and how they’re both so similar…there’s no actual evidence in the movie to support this so it feels like a half-baked attempt at making a more complex villain. They even have Jack Black, who plays R.L. Stein do the voice of Slappy to hit home this potential sub-text. Points for trying, but it falls flat. That being said, Slappy in ‘Goosebumps‘ is everything you want in a villain in a kid’s movie. He’s a genuine threat, but he’s not TOO dangerous, he’s witty, sinister and he even gets a brutal act of violence towards the end of the movie. He was a great villain, entertaining to watch and he still scares the bejeebers out of me.
The cast are strong considering the material. Dylan Minnette gives heart to the role of Zach and even adds layers to the character who may come off as brash when in front of people but in more intimate settings reveals himself to be a big softie. Even the relationship with him and his mother feels genuine and endearing. Odeya Rush is solid as Hannah and while the relationship with her father doesn’t feel as developed as it should be (once again, points for trying) she is an entertaining screen-presence. Ryan Lee is essentially doing a family-friendly version of “McLovin” and mainly exists to be comic-relief, but he does it well and Jack Black is…well, he’s Jack Black. Black definitely knows what type of movie he’s in and he runs with it.
He’s a lot of fun and he actually makes for an oddly compelling R.L. Stein. You believe him as a literary writer, as a father and as a grumpy old man next door. The movie requires a lot of variety from Jack Black and he’s not demonstrated this kind of range on-screen before, but he makes it work, surprisingly enough. Also, Black does a terrific job at voicing Slappy the Dummy. After hearing his work in ‘Goosebumps‘, I’d actually like to hear his take on DC comic’s The Joker in the near future because he’s got the chops for it.
Some elements don’t work as well though. Jillian Bell plays Zach’s aunt and is another comic-relief character, but she doesn’t have any purpose. A supposed romance between her and R.L. Stein comes out of left-field and her main confrontation with a monster feels like it’s flat-out missing from the movie. Some comic-relief cops feel out of place and like I mentioned earlier, the movie does take a bit too long to get going. At 103 minutes they easily could have got that down to 90. Towards the end, despite the spectacle and the satisfying plot-resolution, I did start to feel its length. I also couldn’t help but cringe at Halston Sage’s thankless role as a pretty high school girl who’s only role is to be saved by Champ. After this and ‘Paper Towns‘, Sage desperately needs to find better film roles.
It’s not often you see family-friendly live-action movies with this sort of budget thrown at it and it’s money well spent. There’s a lot of CGI here but most of it works well with the Abominable Snowman, The Garden Gnomes, Giant Mantis and The Blob looking very good on-screen. The Werewolf comes off looking the worst though. There’s also a prominent use of practical effects as well such as Slappy, who is wonderfully animated, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”-style Zombies and other creepy and elaborate costumes and make-up effects. Thankfully the production-team thought to utilise both practical and computer-generated effects where appropriate and the two compliment each other.
The direction is solid with Rob Letterman very clear on the type of film he wants to make and being able to cross-genres where appropriate. There are moments of tension, romance, horror and comedy and they’re weaved very well together visually. Danny Elfman’s music, while distinctly Elfman, doesn’t actually leave much of an impression.
‘Goosebumps‘ aims its metaphorical cross-hairs at a single demographic; 10 year-old kids and hits bullseye…once it get moving after a pretty slow first act. While the movie’s attempt at pathos and a deeper narrative do fall flat, it’s easy to respect ‘Goosebumps‘ for actually making an effort in a market where they could have just slapped the “Goosebumps” brand on it and called it a day. The cast are fun especially Jack Black who demonstrates considerable range as R.L. Stein (though the comic-relief is a bit extraneous), the action-beats are entertaining, Slappy is a terrific villain and the sequel-hook at the end is actually something I’d like to see explored. ‘Goosebumps‘ could have been a product to sell merchandise (it IS a Sony movie, after all) but what we actually have is an affectionate pastiche of 90s family films with strong production values to boot.
I give ‘Goosebumps’ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 8th Feb 16