Film Review: Goosebumps (★★½)

goosebumps_ver2I have measured out my life with book series: The Berenstain Bears (however you want to pronounce it), The Baby-Sitters Club, and Goosebumps. Goosebumps was the first “adult” series I ever read that it creeped me out and caused me to “accidentally” leave a bunch under my bed in the hopes of getting rid of them. Hey, in my mind it was a sound idea. The Goosebumps books and accompanying television series had a vibe similar to the Twilight Zone with its suspense, light horror, twist endings and morality tales. And the talking dummy didn’t hurt. Attempts to adapt the series have been long in development and it’s easy to see how this was originally planned for director Tim Burton with its efforts to blend horror with the humorous. For the most part, this all comes off without a hitch and leaves you with a pleasant, if rather stock, film that’ll please kids this Halloween.

Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) has recently moved to a new town with his mother (Amy Ryan). He soon discovers he lives next door to children’s author R.L. Stine (Jack Black) and, mostly importantly, Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). When the kids accidentally open one of Stine’s manuscripts, unleashing the monsters within, the whole town will have to band together to get the ghouls back into the Goosebumps.

Goosebumps immediately gives off a Tim Burton vibe, not surprising considering Burton planned to work on this for awhile with a script written by long-time Burton scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. (The finished script is credited to Turbo screenwriter Darren Lemke with Alexander and Karaszewski receiving story credits.)

A new kid on the block suffering from personal loss who bands together with a series of outcasts and a crazy man with a horror-tinged pop culture past screams Burton, aided by opening credits – complete with the original Goosebumps logo from the novels – that leaves you waiting for Danny Elfman’s score. There’s also a third act “town bands together” climax reminiscent of Frankenweenie. With all these Burton stepping stones, it’s frustrating watching how Lemke’s script and director Rob Letterman’s direction soften elements from becoming too dark.

The film isn’t an adaptation of one of Stine’s tomes specifically, more an original collaboration of ideas. Think Inkheart meets Jumanji, with a healthy dose of “The Bookish Babysitter” episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Zach discovers he lives next to Stine, whose own personality was so strong everything he wrote manifested itself literally and had to be contained in locked manuscripts. The script doesn’t waste too much time on exposition, and as soon as Zach, Hannah, and Champ (Ryan Lee doing his best recreation of The Goonies’ Chunk) unlock one book – unleashing the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena – the rest of the plot follows a typical children’s suspense tale that never drags or suffers from filler, probably aided by a brisk 98-minute runtime.

Minnette, Rush, and Lee won’t win performances, but their characters never transform into whiny, self-involved teenagers. And outside of a few wisecracks, Minnette isn’t the typical overly sarcastic teenager with the perfect one-liner constantly peeking out of his back pocket. We’re told his dad has recently passed, and his mother (Amy Ryan continuing to waste her talents as supportive mothers) is the new school principle, so there’s just enough to root for him, but never to make him particularly unique. So Minnette really has to sell his performance through his camaraderie with the other actors, which works. He actually holds his own better opposite Black than anyone else.

Lee plays nearly the same neurotic character as he did on ABC’s Trophy Wife, and he’s fun comic relief with his constant screams and inopportune moments opening sodas. Odeya Rush, looking like a young Mila Kunis, plays the weakest link, mostly because poor Hannah is, quite literally, a blank page. We’re given information about her origins that are meant to be the film’s big twist, but it all makes little sense. Characters figure out what her issue is immediately, when I would assume her background would be far darker (here’s where Burton’s influence would have paid off), and her plotline requires exposition that’s missing.

And that leaves Black. I’ll confess, his casting as Stine gave me pause. The requisite Stine cameo here will have you saying, “How the hell did they think Jack Black looked like Stine?” Outside of a bizarre clipped accent, maybe to stand out from the other two characters he voices – Slappy the dummy and the Invisible Boy – Black is perfectly fine as the acerbic Stine. His one-sided rivalry with Stephen King yields some great humor, particularly when it’s revealed that the local high school is apparently putting on The Shining? I want that movie! The constant reiterations that Slappy and him are “one and the same” becomes repetitive, but the stock persona that Stine created when his books took off works right in Black’s wheelhouse.

I will say that the effects are also well-done in a movie that could have easily skimped on them since it’s a kid’s movie. Sure, out of this world elements like the Abominable Snowman look computer generated, but the Slappy dummy looks practical and remains creepy as hell! Other book elements like the evil lawn gnomes are a solid blend of CGI and practical, while nothing scares the pants off adults and children like someone dressed as a clown.

Goosebumps will certainly please kids 12 and under, while fans of the books will find this a pleasant, nostalgic trip down memory lawn. In an October where the horror landscape is nil, Goosebumps certainly gets the tone right and plays on fans of the books’ and television series nostalgia while actually recommending kids, gasp, read!