In high school, I was only really dedicated to two authors… Steven King and Mercedes Lackey, with a particular focus on her historical fantasy series The Valdemar Saga. I read the first four Harry Potters, but lost interest in the long wait between the fourth and fifth book. But when I was in Middle School, there were two franchises I just couldn’t put down… One of them was Animorphs, which strongly deserves it’s own nostalgia trip movie, and the other one was Goosebumps. I loved Goosebumps. I loved the books, I loved the TV show, and I loved the Choose Your Own Scare books.
Granted, I did grow out of both shows. As Animorphs went on, I became less and less interested in anything not having to do with Rachel and Tobias shipping, and wound up only buying the books that were based on them. As I grew out of the low-stakes story-telling of the Goosebumps books, I dabbled a bit in Fear Street (A more mature series where characters actually died) before eventually moving on to Steven King, starting of course with Carrie, Christine and Cujo.
So, flash forward over ten years to my so-called adulthood, A trailer started floating around the theaters, advertising a movie about RL Stine’s collection of creepy creatures escaping their books and wrecking havoc on the town of Madison, Delaware. Having taken one look at this trailer, I was… Disgusted. It looked awful from every possible angle. The jokes that it showcased were lame, and Jack Black… Holy shit, Jack Black. He was supposed to be playing RL Stine, but he was speaking in what sounded like a British accent, and playing up a bunch of self-deprecating low-brow jokes about his own weight, body odor issues, and neurotic tendencies.
It looked flat-out painful, so you can guess how shocked I felt when it was released to some moderately good reviews. It was even getting more praise then it’s release date rival, Crimson Peak, which actually had a deceptively good trailer. I was still telling myself that it was just another case of a movie finding the right audience and earning a high score as a result, despite being the worst thing ever. You know, like Pitch Perfect. I went to see it anyway, intrigued by the possibility of it actually being good, and… Honestly, I really liked it. And since I have a lot to say about it, I thought it would be a good idea to reschedule my Vampire Knight review for November and tell you why.
Zack and his mother, an Assistant Principal looking for a new school to work at, have just moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet suburbs of Madison, Delaware. Zack instinctively rejects this new environment, which he conveys to his too cool mom through what I can only describe as screenwriter dialogue. He meets his new neighbors… An adorable home-schooled girl named Hannah, and her creepy over-protective father… As well as dorky classmate Champion, who’s on the search for a best friend and doesn’t care where he finds one.
After spending a cozy night in the woods with the mysterious transient Hannah… In an abandoned theme park that has trees growing around it yet still somewhat works… .he accidentally sets off her father, who he thinks he sees beating her through the window. He calls the cops, but when Mr. Shivers gets the leg up on him, he decides to take things into his own hands, calling his new Bestie over support and breaking into her house to help her himself, only to find a bizarre collection of Goosebumps manuscripts. But all is not as it seems, as after they find her alive and well, they open one of her father’s books, unleashing the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena! With Hannah’s father being revealed as RL Stein himself, and a vindictive ventriloquist dummy out for revenge against his creator, will Zack be able to save the town he doesn’t even like? Or will this be his… And Hannah’s… Last move ever?
I guess I should start by addressing my biggest complaint from the trailer… Jack Black’s performance. It should go without saying that he’s playing RL Stine in name and bibliography alone, hence my intentional misspelling.. He’s not even trying to do an impression of the author as a person, which is probably a good thing, as I’ve seen him in several episodes of the TV show, and… Well, he’s neither charismatic or a good actor, so a spot-on performance probably not be able to carry a film or keep up with it’s pace. He plays more of a caricature of what a creepy, socially reclusive author might look like, and as an original character, it’s not bad. I originally took the accent as being British, but having seen the whole movie, I’m pretty sure that Black was channeling Mark Hamill’s version of The Joker for his performance of both Stine and Slappy. It works well enough, for what it is.
The rest of the cast ranges from passable to surprisingly good, which is impressive considering the dialogue they were all saddled with. Zack and Hannah, who are somewhat lacking in personality, make up for it with the talents of their actors, alongside their agency and relevance to the plot. Dylan Minette and Odeya Rush have a lot of chemistry with each other, and their romantic sub-plot is easily one of the strongest points of the movie. Ryan Lee, who plays the spineless sidekick Champ, makes for some pretty decent comic relief, even if a lot of his gags go nowhere. Amy Ryan is kind of bland as Zack’s mother, but Jillian Bell is one of the funnest aunts I’ve seen in a movie since Aunt Cass in Big Hero Six.
A lot of the monsters from Stein’s bestiary that appear in this movie in more featured roles are presented to us in CG, such as the aforementioned Snowman, the Werewolf in Fever Swamp, and the Scarabs from The Mummy Returns. Unfortunately, the CGI never looks real, and all three of those creatures… As well as a few I’m not going to mention to preserve some spoilers… Look like cartoons, and won’t look convincing for a second. Having said that, they don’t look like they’re not really there… These monsters have gravity, and they interact well with their environments.
The 3d doesn’t help much, and in scenes where there aren’t any CG monsters to exploit it, it’s pretty pointless, and even goes as far as to make the film’s editing and framing issues a lot more noticeable then they would have been otherwise. Go 2D on this, and save the extra money. The score, by Danny Elfman, sounds exactly like the kind of music you’d expect in a Goosebumps movie, so I’m pretty sure he took some heavy inspiration from the TV show when he was composing it.
So… From a critical perspective, I do believe that kids movies should be held to a different standard than regular movies. That’s not to say they should be allowed to get away with everything just because they’re something colorful to shut the kids up, God no… That’s getting into Disney sequel territory. There should still be a standard, but in my opinion, there are certain rules of storytelling that movies intended for children can and can’t break. I can think of two of these that Goosebumps breaks, and to it’s ever-growing credit, they’d be it’s two biggest problems otherwise.
The first of these two problems is plot holes. Kids movies are allowed to have plot holes, because most kids aren’t going to bother reasoning out the logic behind the magic they’re seeing on screen. Frozen is a great example of this… Loaded with shit that didn’t make any sense, but still in service of a fun and uplifting story full of feels. Goosebumps is loaded with plot holes. Now, most kids won’t be the kind of buzzkills who will watch The Santa clause and wonder why the skeptical adults didn’t realize there were presents under the tree that they didn’t buy… Unlike me, because I’ve always been awesome… But for the most part, any kid seeing this movie will gladly ignore that shit that doesn’t make sense thanks to the film’s snappy pacing and relentless energy. As for the rest of us, the inevitable Cinemasins video is going to be brutal.
Actually, if I act as soon as the DVD comes out, I might be able to beat them to the punch with an Inconvenient Questions post… Let me write that down.
The other problem is cliches. There is almost nothing in this movie that could be considered original. You’ve seen all of this before. The characters, the dialogue that clearly came from a writer trying to sound clever, the jokes from the same source, the biggest scares… Even the usage of a lot of the monsters is reminiscent of other, better films. What saves it is the fact that it’s target audience, the younger viewers, will be far less likely to have experienced any of these recycled elements before, so it’s going to be all new to them. Congrats, Goosebumps, you get a pass.
Thankfully, a lot of the rules that kids movies aren’t allowed to break go mostly untouched. I can’t stand when a kids movie takes advantage of it’s audience’s age, either to be lazy and get way with not putting in any effort, or manipulating them for marketing purposes. I was left highly disappointed by Big Hero Six for it’s reliance on contrivances and idiotic character choices for the sake of the plot, as well as how insidiously it tried to advertise expensive technical colleges with all the grace and honesty of army recruitment ads. While Goosebumps is really dumb in a few places, it never feels lazy or unmotivated, oh no, there’s some genuine creative energy in this puppy, and it believes in the story it’s telling right down to the bone.
There are a few lazy moments… Remember in the trailer, when the Invisible Boy beats up Champ from the outside of a closed window? That’s not even the worst part, as our heroes get stuck in RL Stein’s house because it’s locked from the outside. Thankfully, there aren’t very many of these moments. It never feels like a commercial for the books either, as only one character other than Stein seems to have any actual nostalgic fanhood of it… Appropriately, the comic relief character.
Which isn’t to say the movie is free of flaws. I’m sorry that I have to take this review into SJW territory, but it’s really sad to see that a movie with such an impressive amount of distinctive female characters(including one hilarious cop) somehow only BARELY passes the Bechdal test. Seriously, there are like two exchanges in the entire movie that help it to scrape by. It gets even worse with the conclusion of Champ’s story arc, which… Well, in lieu of spoiling it, I’ll just say it’s the same old kind of bullshit where a guy saves a hot girl’s life to be rewarded with an immediate kiss and an implied human trophy. Also, the movies attempt at adding weight to Stein’s relationship with Slappy comes off highly amateurish, like a sort of “Baby’s first narrative depth” kind of thing.
Also, of course, there’s the inevitable fan-rage over several of my favorite books getting shafted. I tried to not focus on this problem as much, as it’s pretty much the same problem Wreck It Ralph and Roger Rabbit suffered from… You promise your audience a lot of specific references, but you can’t include it all out of fear of leaving you movie feeling overstuffed and fanservicey. I was a little pissed that Welcome to Camp Nightmare wasn’t mentioned, and that Monster Blood was only mentioned in passing. The Haunted Mask and Night of the Jack o’ Lanterns do come into play at the very end, but it;s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. There’s also a scene in an auditorium that was sorely lacking in phantoms. There’s a lot of missed opportunities, but it does a great job with the monsters it chose to use, and frankly, one of my favorite books and episodes from the series does come into play in a brilliant twist you likely won’t see coming, despite several clues.
So would I recommend this movie? Honestly, it depends on what kind of audience you’d be. If you’re an adult who has no history or nostalgia towards the Goosebumps series, this movie isn’t for you. you’ll likely just find it stupid, and I can’t honestly say I’d blame you for it. It’s harmless, and it won’t annoy you too much, so if you have kids, it’s easy enough to sit through for their sake. 4/10.
If you’re an adult who grew up with the franchise, and has generally favorable memories of it from either the book series or the TV show, it’s still not a great movie, but it’s worth seeing for the nostalgia trip. From the fanboy’s perspective, it’s failure to mention Fear Street is probably it’s biggest sin. Still, it’s a fans only experience, so steer clear if this is new territory for you. 6/10.
As for the younger audiences, I’m afraid to say this movie’s biggest problem is the fact that it’s not scary. I guess I could see kids getting nightmares from the giant praying mantis, and there is some genuine suspense in the beginning, but honestly, most episodes of the TV series are scarier than this movie. I know that doesn’t seem like much, as we are talking about children, but why do you think Gremlins and Ghostbusters have endured for so long? They’re funny and quirky, but there were genuine scares for kids to come back to at an older age.
It’s been a long time in general since any kids movie was genuinely scary, but for what it’s worth, Goosebumps isn’t really trying to be scary… It’s going for more of an action and comedic tone, and you know what? Chills or not, it’s a really fun ride! This isn’t the movie that’ll keep your kids up at night until they’re old enough to know it’s all fake… It’s the Monster Mash. It’s fun, it’s funny, it uses its collection of monsters more for adrenaline and comedy than for terror, and it pulls that off a lot better than either Hotel Transylvania movie does. 8/10.
Anyway, like I said before, I really enjoyed this movie, and I’m glad I took a chance in getting my thoughts on it off of my chest. It wasn’t great, and I wouldn’t automatically recommend it to anyone without attaching some conditions, but the things it did wrong were largely painless, and it was written (dialogue aside) more than well enough to make up for it’s issues. Give it a shot if you think it’s something you’d enjoy, or just tolerate it if you have kids looking for a silly spooky treat. Either way, don’t waste your money on the 3D.