Directed by Rob Letterman.
Starring Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell and Ryan Lee
A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.
2015/2016 seems like such an odd time to adapt the best-selling book series that really had its heyday 20 years ago. Like The Tom Green Show or Jackass, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps was a product of its time; horror stories written for children while shows like Tales From the Crypt entertained adults. As such, adapting Goosebumps for the big screen in the 21st Century was never going to be an easy task. The earliest attempt can be traced back to the late-1990s – when the book series was at its most popular – with Tim Burton possibly directing. Obviously, that movie never materialised either, and one of the issues writers have always suggested is that Stine’s original books were too short to fully adapt for a feature film. So, what’s the answer? You tell a whole new story.
Zach is your everyday teenager who has just moved into the suburbs with his mother from his fancy life in New York City following the death of his Dad. He is quickly introduced to his new neighbour, Mr. Shivers, who is hiding in the shadows and warns Zach to never come over to his house or interact with his daughter Hannah. But Zach – being a hormonal teenage boy – can’t help but hang out with Hannah, and even rushes over to her house when it seems like she is in trouble. With his new friend Champ (or Chump as he’s known round school), Zach soon discovers that Mr. Shivers is in fact R.L. Stine – creator of Goosebumps. More shockingly, Zach and Champ open up one of Stine’s manuscripts and unleashes the monster from the pages into the real world. Before long, all of Stine’s creations are loose and are tearing up Zach’s new neighbourhood.
When you write down everything that the movie accomplishes in its very tight 100 minute run time, Goosebumps is the near-perfect adaptation. It cleverly invites you into its world and sets up a brilliant adventure for these three kids to overcome whilst acting as a love letter to the books its based upon. In many respects, Goosebumps is a lot like The LEGO Movie. It could have just easily been a cheap-and-easy cash-in with little care or attention, but the script by Darren Lemke along with the direction from Rob Letterman delivers a sublime cinematic experience for everyone in the audience. Kids will love the adventure and excitement, and the parents who have taken the kids will enjoy all of the loving nods to the book series they probably grew up reading. Not only that, but the movie now introduces Goosebumps to a whole new audience – which was no doubt the point of the movie’s existence.
The brilliance of its story is that Goosebumps plays out like a Goosebumps book. The teenager coming into a new town he knows nothing about with the scary neighbour is a typical trope of the series, and the twists and turns throughout are lifted right off the pages of R.L. Stine (one of which is telegraphed if you’ve read the book on which its based). There’s fun little nods to the book’s history peppered throughout the movie that never overshadow the plot and are there to enhance the movie-going experience.
And it’s not just the script and direction that are wonderful, it’s also the cast of characters. Zach is a delightfully likeable guy and his friendship/relationship with next-door-crush Hannah (Odeya Rush) is incredibly sweet. Dylan Minnette really brings Zach to life and is responsible for his likability, but his performance is overshadowed by the better Rush and Ryan Lee as Champ. Lee, as the bumbling sidekick, is given the majority of the funny moments and he nails every single one with pinpoint precision. Jack Black is more subdued than we’ve seen him in School of Rock, Tropic Thunder, Gulliver’s Travels (also directed by Letterman) and Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, but it really works for the R.L. Stine character. Even in his more calmer and collected state, he still manages to get a huge amount of laughs and the movie’s meta-script really plays to Black’s strengths. We go get to hear Black as we usually know him as the voice of Slappy from the iconic Night of the Living Dummy, and this is a nice subtle touch by Letterman to remind the audience that he’s a creation of Stine’s rather than telling us he is (Black also voices Brent, the boy from My Best Friend is Invisible). But importantly, because these characters are so wonderfully likable and are backed-up by an excellently performed supporting cast (including Amy Ryan, Timothy Simons, Amanda Lund, an under-utilised Ken Marino and a fantastic Jillian Bell), you’ll find yourself cheering them on this wild ride and wanting to see them come out on top.
The set pieces throughout – whether its facing The The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena in an ice rink, evading The Werewolf of Fever Swamp in a grocery story or escaping the attack of the Graveyard Gouls – are terrific and Letterman’s direction is on-point. One could argue that his over reliance on CGI is a hindrance as the threats never feel too real, but Goosebumps has some legitimate scares that are note-perfect for a kid’s film. A complaint could be made that there aren’t enough of the classic Goosebumps monsters in the film (only the Werewolf, Abominable Snowman, Slappy, the Praying Mantis from A Shocker on Shock Street and the lawn gnomes from Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes are given real screentime), but this feels like it was more down to a budgetary restraint rather than laziness in the filmmaking. Should the film get a sequel (which its box office success would indicate but the film never does), there is a chance to open up a bigger can of worms and see some of the other creatures.
Just like Jurassic World last year, Goosebumps is the perfect kickstarter for a brand new franchise for kids to love and parents to enjoy. This could legitimately be the best kids film since The LEGO Movie, and its very difficult to find fault in it. Some of its plot points are convenient and an argument could be made about the movie changing its rules to justify the story, but these are surface complaints that are over-shadowed by an overwhelmingly fun experience. At the end of the day, the filmmakers set out to make a kids horror movie that would entertain every single soul in the cinema, and they have succeed perfectly.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and a contributor for Flickering Myth TV. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen.