A year after the death of his father, sarcastic, kindly teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves from New York City to a quiet suburban community in Madison, Delaware with his vice-principal mother (Amy Ryan). With few friends in town except for an overeager nerd with the unfortunate name of Champ (Ryan Lee), Zach finds a kindred spirit in Hannah (Odeya Rush), the sheltered teenage girl next door with a creepily overprotective father. Her dad turns out to be reclusive children’s horror novelist R.L. Stine (Jack Black). One night while breaking into Stine’s house to check on Hannah’s well being, Champ and Zach inadvertently open one of the original locked manuscripts to one of the author’s best-selling “Goosebumps” books, setting in motion a chain of events that will leave the small town under siege from the ghosts, ghouls, gnomes, zombies, giant insects and assorted villains contained within the pages of some of the world’s best-selling tales of terror.
Pitched somewhere between an inventive take on the same kind of chaotic world building that worked so well for Jumanji and Zathura and a pre-teen meta take on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Goosebumps isn’t particularly scary for kids of any age, but it’s consistently entertaining. It’s not trying to be as spooky or creepy as Stine’s original stories, but instead wants to be The Monster Squad for a new generation, and by those modest, fun-loving goals the film succeeds nicely. It’s a perfectly seasonally-appropriate treat for the whole family.
It’s hard to make a single film from such a massive series of books (and one that already spawned a television series), but it’s strange to note that the script from Jack the Giant Slayer scribe Darren Lemke (working from a story courtesy of Ed Wood and Big Eyes writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) manages to play up the world-building and monster-mashing mayhem better than the more human beats that should be the backbone of the story. The monsters never feel superfluous, but a lot of the human characters do, especially the adults.
It’s kind of a mess, with story and characters that only show up for two scenes each, neither adding to nor distracting from the core concept of Stein’s creations running amok. One gets the sense that characters like Zach’s mother, a pair of inept cops (played brilliantly by Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund), Zach’s hilariously whacked, bedazzling-obsessed aunt (scene stealer Jillian Bell), and the gym teacher that’s sweet on Zach’s mom (Ken Marino) had much bigger parts in earlier incarnations of the script, but they have been cut down to nearly nothing in an effort to appeal more to the younger members of the audience than the nostalgic twenty-somethings that might see this one out of curiosity. It’s a pretty big missed opportunity that leaves the film feeling choppy and sometimes malformed, but at least it reduces Marino’s performance to a perfect degree, giving him only one line of any consequence and turning it into the funniest moment of the climax.
But despite the adults getting the short end of the stick—save for Black, hamming it up and delivering his funniest and most endearing performance in quite some time—the kids will get their money’s worth, as will adults who will probably marvel at how much fun is being had. Director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels, Monsters Vs. Aliens) keeps the set pieces big, vibrant and impressive while allowing the monsters moments of terror and humour in equal amount. Although the CGI and the spectacle get a big dodgy during the final showdown (set creatively at an abandoned amusement park in the middle of the woods), the fun never stops and a gleeful sense of wonder is maintained. It’s balanced nicely by a clockwork story structure that manages a nice, heartfelt message about loss and loneliness going into the final third.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Slappy, a ventriloquist dummy come to life that functions as the chief villain. Voiced by Black as a bit of a mash-up between Brainy Gremlin and The Cryptkeeper, he fulfils the film’s need for a great bad guy and a requisite necessity for awful puns and one liners. It’s a perfect character, and the one that rightfully gets the biggest cheers whenever he shows up. He’s worth the price of admission alone.