Goosebumps review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Just when it feels as though I’m over the wonder of nostalgia, along comes Goosebumps to unearth another part of my childhood. The scary book series conjures up memories of being gleefully terrified of sentient ventriloquist dummies and cursed cuckoo clocks. I didn’t want to be swayed by having all these classic monsters and creatures translated to the big screen in a Jumanji fashion. But I just couldn’t help myself marveling at the spectacle of it all. I and many others of my generation grew up with these characters that spawned from the mind of R.L. Stine. It’s impossible not be a little bit nostalgic for it after all these years. Thankfully, my joy with this picture wasn’t entirely through rose-colored glasses.
R.L. Stine is portrayed in the movie by Jack Black with a satirical tone as a loner of a writer. He keeps to himself and out of the public eye in his home in Madison, Delaware. But the presence of his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) attracts the attention of his new neighbor Zach (Dylan Minnette), a snarky yet plucky teenager. Concerned by a Rear Window situation happening next door, Zach teams up with the meek teen Champ (Ryan Lee) to break into Stine's house. They happen upon all of Stine’s old Goosebump manuscripts that are curiously locked by the cover. When unlocked, the monsters and creatures of the novels come to life as they are literally ripped from the pages. Chaos in Delaware ensues just in time for the homecoming dance.
What makes Goosebumps such a fun picture is its self-aware nature. It knows who its audience is - both nostalgic adults and fear-seeking kids - and knows how to play on its meta nature for comedy. Much of the humor derives from Stine’s shrill pride in his work. When asked why he didn’t write about nicer things when the monsters come to life, Stine answer is that it wouldn’t sell millions of copies. When taunted by the teens about Stephen King being superior, Stine stops the car to angrily cite that he sold more books than King. The rest of the comedy is gleefully silly and sometimes corny, but rarely bland.
Featuring the likes of the abominable snowman, fast werewolves and man-eating blobs, there is certainly a lot of computer graphics employed. But director Rob Letterman is smart enough to keep everything both grounded and breezy. It also helps that there are a decent amount of practical monsters including zombies, mummies, evil clowns and the infamous ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Jack Black). Letterman could have just as easily gone with a completely CGI Slappy to have him do more ridiculous action-oriented scenes, but there’s more charm in seeing a real dummy cause mayhem.
Despite the presence of social media here and there, Goosebumps feels rather old-fashioned in that it doesn’t try to talk down to a generation of kids and young adults. It’s certainly goofy in how these characters are portrayed, but never does it feel insulting. If anything feels insulting, it’s perhaps that the script doesn’t follow Stine’s advice of a good story having “a beginning, a middle and the twist.” The twist is discovered early on and nothing all that surprising happens after. There are even a few characters and subplots established that don’t really go anywhere, merely wrapped up quickly by the end. That being said, the movie is still propped up by the likes of Black and company doing their best with a Nickelodeon-style script.
Goosebumps is a pleasing enough nostalgia trip for adults and a solid horror/comedy for kids. It shamelessly walks the line of the frenetic family film genre, in league with Jumanji and Zathura, but still has enough of a charismatic bite to be entertaining. It never bores, the actors are fine and the special effects rarely outstay their welcome. And if it inspires kids to go out and read those spooky old books then I’m all for it.