Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Rob Letterman
Stars: Amanda Lund, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Ella Wahlestedt, Halston Sage, Jack Black,Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Kumail Nanjiani, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Timothy Simons
Released: February 5th, 2016
As a child of the nineties, as someone who was in fourth and fifth grade at the dead center of the decade I was completely immersed in the Goosebumps books. I can easily recall going to Wal-Mart with my mom every month and constantly checking to see if the new book was on the shelves yet. I would devour these books to the point of ridiculousness and their popularity was such that at this point in time even my fourth grade teacher decided to read one of author R.L. Stine’s works of adolescent horror to the class so as to appeal to those who weren’t on board with Tuck Everlasting. While the books meant a great deal to me and I was a big fan of the Fox Kids Saturday morning line-up at the time I was unfortunately never able to get into their live-action adaptations of Stine’s stories in the TV series that ran from 1995 to 1998. There was all the excitement in the world for such a series, but once it premiered there was never enough to keep me coming back-unlike the books. And so, how would a live-action movie version of such stories be any different? Given I was also twenty years removed from the source material, would I even care if aGoosebumps movie did honorable service to the literature or was it time to move on and accept that whatever it was that made these books so captivating to so many kids on the brink of their teenage years in the mid-nineties was just an elusive quality never to be contained on celluloid? It turns out, all the material needed was a dash of meta-comedy that allowed the story to not only incorporate several of Stine’s most popular characters, but Stine himself. With this opportunity to tell a brand new story rather than simply rehashing one of Stine’s more popular titles the film is given a fresh idea that combines the likes of something akin to Jumanji or Zathura with the perfect balance of slightly off-kilter comedy and scary scenarios with over-the-top monsters that made the books so engaging. In short, this new Goosebumps film exceeded all expectations by delivering a fun and charming horror flick for kids that will undoubtedly be brought out every year around Halloween for a long time to come.
Written by Darren Lemke (Turbo, Jack the Giant Slayer) this new story tells of high schooler Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) who is forced to move to the fictional town of Madison, Delaware when his mom, Gale (Amy Ryan), gets a job as assistant principal at a new school. Zach is still reeling from the death of his father a year before and his mother hopes a change of scenery might help to heal such wounds. Zach and his mother’s new neighbors are the mysterious “Mr. Shivers” and his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), but when Zach tries to make nice and introduce himself, Mr. Shivers warns him to stay away from his house and his daughter. Hannah has other ideas though as being both home schooled as well as cut off from the world in every way imaginable has led to a rebellious spirit that is immediately attracted to the new neighbor. At school, Zach befriends a fellow student named Champ (Ryan Lee) who sports an endearing dorkiness and social awkwardness that keeps the comedic pacing of the film up to task. On the night of a school dance Zach overhears Mr. Shivers and Hannah arguing, followed by Hannah screaming. He instinctively calls the police, but Mr. Shivers is able to deflect any suspicion of any wrongdoing only further confirming to Zach that Hannah is in trouble. After calling up his new friend and devising a plan to get Mr. Shivers out of the house Zach and Champ break in next door with the intent of rescuing Hannah. What they actually do is unlock one of the many Goosebumps manuscripts they come across inside Hannah’s house that unleashes a multitude of monsters from the series. Concluding that Mr. Shivers is actually R.L. Stine (Jack Black) and that Stine’s creations all have the capability to come to life it is up to our trio of new friends and Stine himself how to figure out how to get all of these characters back in their books before they completely destroy the town of Madison.
Beginning with Black, who doesn’t remotely look like the actual Stine, the cast appear to all be having a great time here as well. Taking on something of a more restrained demeanor and a dialect that impresses immediately upon the audience that of a snooty writer mentality Black plays Stine as an uptight adult in a world where childlike curiosity is king. While the film doesn’t go so far as to place the adults in the position of the ignorant authority while the children are the only ones privy to the actual facts of the situation like many a Amblin produced children films, Black is still the authoritative figure that keeps our heroes in line while serving as their guide through this uncharted territory. As the leader of the trio, Minnette (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) is a capable lead and most impressively is able to pull off the balance of being effortlessly cool while unafraid of being portrayed as a dork which in turn only makes his character more appealing. I tend to get Minnette confused with Logan Lerman from time to time, but over his last few roles Minnette has proved to have something of a knack for solid comedic timing and proves himself again here by being able to hang with Black throughout. As what is more or less the co-lead of the film, Rush’s Hannah is both the object of Zach’s affections and a fully fleshed out character in her own right. It’s not only appealing that Lemke gave dual leading duties to a male and female so as to give the crowds of kiddies each a surrogate, but that both are competent, hip and slightly mature for their age speaks well to the role models they’ll be looked to as. Rush (The Giver) is a soothing presence on screen and so we feel the anxiety of her tense situation with her father as a genuine strain. Minnette and Rush are a formidable pair on screen as well despite the inherent awkwardness of their obvious fondness for one another. Present to smooth that awkwardness over is Lee’s (Super 8) comic relief that, when paired with the hilarious Jillian Bell and a couple of goofy small town cops played to perfection by Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons, give the film a great sense of humor that effectively balances the scary character designs of some of Stine’s most famous creations.
As the film began and the camera panned over a large body of water it was immediately reminiscent of that other nineties piece of Halloween nostalgia that is Hocus Pocus. There was a sense of scope to it, while the score from Danny Elfman really reinforces the tone of that time period by giving the film a sense of adventure with enough character thrown in to make both the charming, comfortable moments shine and the creepy ones extra-creepy. In essence, watching Goosebumps was something like being transported back to my childhood. It was a quality production of a Saturday morning TV show with top tier talent and special effects making the bigness of it all the more exciting and the wholesomeness of it all the more endearing. These qualities did nothing but leave me with a smile on my face the entire runtime. In writing all of those pleasantly descriptive words without giving any real explanation as to why I was made to feel this way I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint what exactly the movie did to make me react this way. More than saying this simply feels like a real movie, something people put actual time, effort and care into, there is no one detail that was so glaringly great that it stands above the rest. Maybe that is the magic of it. Everything was so well balanced, each element given it’s rightful due that by the time we came to the end of the journey and were able to reflect it all melded together to form nothing more than good memories. What I enjoyed most about the experience though, was seeing it in a theater full with it’s target audience (though the fact this will appeal to several generations is a real plus for Columbia) who reacted with such excitement to a movie that seemingly elicited such genuine thrills and scares that it was all the more validating this was as good a movie as I thought it was. In all honesty, this movie had no right to be any good and could have turned out to be little more than a cash grab on a familiar property, but director Rob Letterman (Monsters Vs. Aliens, Gulliver’s Travels) clearly took great care with the material and as a result has delivered a legitimate crowd-pleaser for what could potentially be a very broad crowd.