Once the Hollywood nostalgia train gave up on ’80s reboots to move firmly into the 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the studios found their way to R.L. Stine. ‘Goosebumps’ (“The Movie” is sadly absent from the title), manages to recapture the tone of the pint-sized monster potboilers rather well, while also latching onto the structure of those big, lumbering family blockbusters like ‘Night at the Museum’.
The film is a far better family-friendly Halloween goof-off than most would have expected when it was announced. In fact, it works well enough that a sequel is practically inevitable.
Things kick off exactly like a ‘Goosebumps’ book. Following a family tragedy, teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves to a new town with his Vice Principal mommy (Amy Ryan). They crack some wise with hints of emotion snuck in before Zach has to suffer through the first day of school as a new kid. (Shudder.) Their new neighboring house is also a big creepy place that Zach distrusts until he notices that a young girl named Hannah (Odeya Rush) lives there. Of course, he instantly falls for her. Unfortunately, her daddy is played by Jack Black in overbearing poppa mode. Even worse, it turns out that Black is actually playing author R.L. Stine. Through some delightfully silly circumstances, all of the writer’s monsters come to life, led by the iconic and creepy (in a kid-friendly way) ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black as well).
Aside from scale, the movie plays out very much like an old-timey ‘Goosebumps’ book. It’s a pretty straightforward monster tale hinged on cliffhangers, creatures pulled from 1950s to ’80s B-movies, gentle scares, simple emotional growth, and a smattering of silly humor. That’s a formula Stine strictly adhered to while he cranked out one of these tiny books a month during his heyday. (Well… it’s assumed that some ghost writers helped, but let’s not get into that.) Screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (‘Ed Wood’) and Derren Lemke spruce it up with meta humor and some decent snappy dialogue amongst the parade of groan-worthy one-liners. Director Rob Letterman got his start in animation before segueing to live action, so aside from the Slappy dummy, pretty much all of the monsters are big, cartoony and fake. That’s just how these sorts of family movies work these days.
You can’t exactly describe ‘Goosebumps’ as scary, but then again the books never really were either. These are monster tales for ‘tweens, where no one dies and redemption is only a life lesson/monster fight away. Letterman’s focus is on creating a fairground haunted house ride, and it’s amusing enough thanks to all the tongue-in-cheek humor that punctuates the jump-scares. The movie is heavily influenced by the cartoonish horrors of Joe Dante (especially in one garden gnome kitchen attack scene), but with Dante’s faint stabs of harsh subversion scrubbed away. However, taken on its own aggressively family-friendly terms, this thing is pretty fun, especially whenever talented comedic actors like Black, Ryan, Ken Marino or Jillian Bell get a chance to sell the gentle humor.
The closest point of comparison here is ‘Jumanji’, just with monsters instead of animals cutting loose on a small town. All things considered, that’s not a bad way to bring ‘Goosebumps’ to the big screen. The stakes and scale are raised over the books, but the experience more often hints at the idea of spookiness rather than delivering actual scares. As far as these sorts of family blockbusters go, it’s perfectly pleasant with some genuine laughs and even a smattering of clever ideas.
‘Goosebumps’ is an ideal monster movie romp for 8-year-olds, almost like a Nickelodeon Halloween special spruced up with $100 million in production values. Will new kiddies respond to the movie better than the twenty- to thirty-something nostalgics looking to revisit the spooky books of their youth? Well, of course. But then again, any adult attempting to read a ‘Goosebumps’ book in the 1990s would have wondered what all the fuss was about too.
The ‘Goosebumps’ film is likely as entertaining and enjoyable as any movie based on the property could have been. Now the only question is how and when it will get spoiled with a crappy sequel.