As a child who grew up in the 1990s, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps universe was something of great importance and pleasure to me. From reading the books by torch light under my bed covers to obsessively watching the TV show, the children’s author’s intriguing tales with sinister edges accounted for a great deal of my childhood, and along with the popular Are You Afraid Of The Dark? series, that time period was something of a golden age for the genre that has been rather neglected in the proceeding fifteen years. That is, until now.
In what feels like a well timed revival of the franchise, director Rob Letterman brings Goosebumps to the big screen with a fun story that manages to incorporate many of the most memorable and iconic characters from R.L. Stine’s impressive 182 book back catalogue. The story begins with Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette), a teenage boy who along with his mother (played by Amy Ryan) has moved to a new home in Madison, Delaware after the death of his father. Immediately after moving in, Zach’s attention is arrested by Hannah (Odeya Rush), the pretty girl next door, but his instincts tell him something is wrong after several aggressive and difficult confrontations with Hannah’s mysterious father (played by Jack Black). After believing that Hannah has been hurt one evening, Zach and his new classmate Champ (Ryan Lee) break in only to discover that Hannah’s father is, in fact, the reclusive R.L. Stine himself, and that in their attempts to check on Hannah’s safety, they have opened and unlocked all of the author’s magical manuscripts, releasing a host of horrible monsters to wreak havoc on the town. The narrative proceeds in a typical family adventure style, with the various characters teaming up to round together and recapture the gang of fantasy creatures, and whilst the film relies quite heavily on CGI, it is one of the better recent examples of ensuring a picture retains an element of tactility amidst it’s computer generation. In many ways, Goosebumps harkens back to some of the great family romps of the 1990s like Jumanji and Casper. The script contains comedy, and effective comedy at that, that appeals to both young viewers and older viewers, and whilst it perhaps does not hit the quality levels of the very best examples of the genre, the main feeling one gets from watching the film is one of pure fun. It plays on the nostalgia that original readers have for the series (including a cameo from R.L. Stine himself), whilst at the same time introducing the Goosebumps world to a whole new generation of young fans. Something that filmmakers often forget is that children, contrary to popular belief, really do like to be scared in a controlled environment like the cinema, and whilst the film certainly does utilise many of the creepier elements of the series like Slappy the ventriloquist’s dummy, if anything I think it could have been even bolder in its attempts to get the jumpy juices flowing. What comes across more than anything, though, is that what the cast and crew have done is succeeded in making a throw back kind of movie that concentrates simply and effectively on making sure that their audience have a good time for 100 minutes. It stays true to the tone of the original source material, and adds an interesting choice to the mix for parents who cannot face another cookie cutter, unoriginal animation for their next family cinema trip.
As protagonist Zach, Dylan Minnette proves to be an engaging and charismatic lead. His classic boy next door looks perfectly suit Zach’s character, who is essentially the type of kid that we have seen hundreds of times in these types of films, honest, brave, eager to help, full of ideas. Minnette certainly commands the screen and his conviction of character ensures that Zach remains a credible protagonist instead of turning in to more of an unrealistic ideal. Ryan Lee gives a punchy and humorous performance as classmate Champ, tasked with being the butt of many of the script’s jokes and operating very much within the cliched mould of the goofy sidekick. As Hannah, the girl with a secret, Odeya Rush gives a perfectly fine performance, providing a touch of calm compared to the other, louder characters in the group. Jack Black is up to his usual tricks as R.L. Stine, choosing to perform the role in a strange, clipped accent that might work for some but unfortunately just proved to annoy me by the third act. His physicality and a interaction with the younger characters, however, is on point as always and though I would go so far as saying that I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, Black certainly brings an element of fun that would be hard to replace.
Overall, Goosebumps is a fun family romp that provides a better quality choice of children’s movie than audiences usually get around the drama and biopic heavy awards season. Though it’s PG rating means that it does not perhaps pack as much of a scary punch as some of R.L. Stine’s greatest books, the film will definitely thrill little ones whilst also having enough awareness to entertain the adults as well. I predict sequels.