I broke one of my cardinal vows and checked out a review of Goosebumps before sitting down to write my own review of the film inspired by the writings of R.L. Stine, known by some as the Stephen King of children's literature.
As I was reading the review by my good buddy and journalistic peer Sam Watermeier, it became apparent that he'd plopped himself inside that theater determined to have a nostalgic experience reliving the creepies and crawlies from his not so distant childhood. A mere twentysomething, Watermeier is in the early years of his journalistic career yet one gets the sense that he'd hoped to relive those childhood glory days spent with an R.L. Stine book on his bedside table and a light on in the hallway because "Slappy's Nightmare" scared the crap out of him.
For the record, when someone in their 20's tells me that they're feeling old I just want to slap them over the head with my first edition copy of the Holy Bible.
But, I digress.
You could almost feel the disappointment sloshing around in Sam's every printed word as he tossed around comparisons to Jumanji and Night at the Museum.
I didn't have Sam's baggage as I sat myself down in that same theater only a few feet away from Sam and found myself enjoying the heck out of Goosebumps, a film more inspired by the R.L. Stine writings than actually based on them. Scripted by Darren Lemke, Goosebumps the film takes the world of R.L. Stine and creates a story that envelopes that universe. If you've spied the trailer, then you already know that Goosebumps isn't so much promising a trip down memory lane as it is simply an entertaining journey that tiptoes through nostalgia and revels in the kid-friendly scary monsters that Stine has always seemed to create so easily.
The books by Stine had such titles as the aforementioned "Slappy's Nightmare," "The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena," "Scream School," and "The Haunted Car" among many others. Stine's books have sold well over 400 million copies, yet for some reason I simply never had one cross my path as a child. That's probably because I was raised Jehovah's Witness and that life was scary enough.
The story centers around Zach (Dylan Minnette, Scandal), a teenager relocated with his mother (Amy Ryan, Birdman and Bridge of Spies) to the small town of Madison, Delaware so she can take a job as a vice-principal. He does a rather quick "meet cute" with the home-schooled girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush, The Giver), but is scared off by her ultra-protective and mysterious father (Jack Black). With the exception of the class nerd, Champ (Ryan Lee, Trophy Wife), who is mostly known as Chump, Zach struggles to fit into this new setting and it doesn't exactly help things when he calls the town police after believing he's hearing screams during an argument between Hannah and her father.
While this kind of set-up certainly could find its way into the world of R.L. Stine, it's not been made a secret that Stine himself is, in fact, a character in Goosebumps the film. If you haven't figured out which character it is, then you may not be ready yet to see the film.
It is, in fact, easy to make the comparison of Goosebumps to Jumanji or, on a much lesser level, the Night at the Museum films. The second half of the film, ultimately too much of the film, is spent trying to gain control of the world that Stine created. We learn, not surprisingly, that Stine created these books out of the darkest corners of an unhappy childhood. These monsters are, in essence, both childhood coping skills and a childlike way of dealing with childhood fears, frustrations and anger. As Stine grew up, so did his monsters and before long they took on a life all their own. Fortunately, for everyone, they could be locked away in the pages of his books. That is, until Zach bursts in one night after hearing screams and inadvertently releases Slappy, a ventriloquist's dummy who isn't exactly dumb and who isn't about to give up his freedom easily. Slappy eventually releases all the monsters and it's up to Stine, Zach, Hannah and Champ to find a way to lock them all back away forever.
If this all sounds incredibly childlike, it is.
If this all sounds a little familiar, it is.
As directed by Rob Letterman ((Monsters vs. Aliens, Gulliver's Travels), Goosebumps is also quite a bit of fun even if it is destined to not quite please those seeking nostalgia and even if it mostly journeys through territories we've seen before. The film is for the most part really well cast with believable relationships and a relaxed camaraderie that makes watching the film feel good even when it doesn't entirely entertain. Jack Black seems to be in touch with the film's campy potential, though it's also reasonable to say he's more over-the-top than anyone else here and that occasionally feels uneven. The sugary sweet relationship between Zach and Hannah is warm and winning, while Amy Ryan takes a thankless role and gives it a whole lot of heart. Odeya Rush, who kind of looks like a young Mila Kunis, added just the right amount of fun and spirit to the proceedings. Ryan Lee practically steals the show as Champ, a nerd that you just know is going to find a way to redeem himself by film's end. Halston Sage, familiar from this year's Paper Towns, again plays a hottie who ends up falling for a nerd.
Goosebumps is better than you think it's going to be, but it also doesn't quite live up to the nostalgic glory that fans of Stine's writings will want it to be. If you can check your agenda at the door, it's an entertaining, fairly intelligent, and genuinely fun kid flick that can be enjoyed by nearly all children with the exception of those easily freaked out by monsters. As I spoke with some children after the screening I attended, they assured me they enjoyed the film but did, in fact, have some scenes they found a bit scary.
R.L. Stine will be so proud.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic