Posted: 27th February 2016 | Written by: Ben Browne
The “Goosebumps” series of books, like Stephen King's tales for kids, have sold an impressive 400 million copies worldwide. They became a huge franchise and a cultural phenomenon spawning a TV show, video games and tons of merchandise.
It's no wonder that a feature film was kicked into production to capitalise on the popularity. Yeah- except that that Goosebumps as a “thing” had its heyday in the late '90s and has been fairly dormant since. The fact that there's a Goosebumps film released in 2016, a good twenty years after its peak, is pretty head-scratching. Still, better late than never.
Sarcastic teen Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves to the town of Madison, Delaware with his mother. He meets his neighbour Hannah (Odeya Rush) and the two hit it off. However, Hannah's unpleasant father (Jack Black) is adamant that the two stay on their respective fence sides. After some suspicious activity goes down, our teen hero enters their house to investigate.
During his snooping, Zach accidentally opens a book called “The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena” and an angry yeti appears roaring from the pages. It soon transpires that Hannah's dad is Goosebumps author R.L. Stine and that Zach has started a chain reaction that has unleashed all of Stine's horrific creations on the small town.
I actually liked the reflexive take on the material. A feature length adaptation of one of Stine's books may have stretched the material a little too thin as their simplicity was one of the key factors in their popularity. However, “doing a Jumanji” is a smart move as it enables some fan-favourite characters to pop into frame without overstaying their welcome. I was an avid reader of the Goosebumps books as a kid and I was pretty delighted at appearances from Slappy the dummy and a quick Prince Khor-Ru cameo from “Return of the Mummy”. Yes, it's blatant nostalgia pandering and yeah, it'll only work on a specific audience way too old to be the target audience, but I'm not ashamed to say it worked on me.
I think the film works as a good introduction to the world of R.L. Stine too. A lot of the monsters are pop culture staples like mummies, vampires, clowns and scarecrows. It's a greatest hits compilation and there's bound to be some creature that newcomer children would want to see more of. If they're not impressed with a rather generic werewolf, perhaps they'll be interested in reading about the giant praying mantis from “A Shocker on Shock Street.”
Whilst the lead teens are merely OK, veering into wooden occasionally, it's Jack Black who manages to ground the whole thing. He plays against type and is an uptight, severe character with a oddly clipped way of talking. He's constantly funny and it helps sell the crazy goings-on.
The only character that irritated was Champ, Zach's sidekick, with his gawky way and perpetually cracking voice. Nothing would have been lost if he wasn't in the film at all and frankly I wouldn't have ground my teeth as much. I think young actor Ryan Lee does a decent job, but it's clear Champ is a stock nerd character inserted because other childrens' adventure films have similar roles.
I was surprised at how solidly written the story was. The dialogue bounces along nicely and there are some genuinely amusing moments, especially when the town's cops are involved. However, I also wish the film had been a little scarier. A lot of the darker elements have been watered down. I remember being chilled by the books and the TV show and there wasn't much of that in this. If writers like R.L. Stine and Roald Dahl prove anything is that kids can handle some dark stuff. I was slightly disappointed by the edgeless family friendly nature of it all, but it didn't so much to spoil the ride.
There's a lot of fun to be had. As the kids and Stine move from encounter to encounter, there's always a sense of excitement as to what monster or villain is going to turn up. There's a palpable energy to the whole thing as the film whips from one set-piece to the next.
The CGI work ranges from decent to a bit shonky, but it does an admirable job of bringing the creatures to life. Tying in to the whole family-friendly vibe, a lot of the designs are very cartoony and they don't mesh particularly well with the live action. I was disappointed that one of my favourite series, “Monster Blood”, only got a cursory mention and no real presence, but that outlines how successful the film is at doing what it set out to do.
It had proper homages to some of Stine's more iconic works and I wanted to see my preferred series represented. With this sort of film, I'd normally be praying for my favourite not to show up so it wasn't ruined.
Goosebumps is better than it has any right it be. Whilst there were some questionable deviations and decisions made, it managed to charm me more than I thought possible It's a fun, energetic ghost train ride of a film filled with colourful monsters and a great Jack Black performance. Recommended.
Ben Browne, The Popcorn Bucket