Friday, October 16, 2015

Review: Goosebumps (2015)

Goosebumps (2015)

Rated PG for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor

Score: 3 out of 5

Goosebumps is a film that could have, and by all appearances should have, easily sucked. Starring Jack Black, a man who hasn't had a leading role in a good movie in years, and with trailers that focused more on crude humor and special effects than anything, it looked like a cheap cash-in on both young kids who are "too dumb to know any better" and the nostalgia of twenty-something millennials who grew up on R. L. Stine's cheesy kids' horror novels and the TV show based on them. Imagine my surprise, then, when critics started saying that this movie actually wasn't bad -- in fact, they were saying it was pretty good, albeit not great. Having been on the fence myself regarding this one (I, too, am one of those millennials), I went and checked it out. It doesn't quite pull it together in the end, but between a highly amusing performance by Black, a rapid pace that doesn't let up, and a story that definitely had its heart in the right place, I was pleasantly surprised. While certainly not without its problems, Goosebumps is a truly good movie that both parents and kids can enjoy, and one that, much like the books it's based on, is likely to last for a long while as a Halloween staple.

The film follows Zach Cooper, a teenage boy who's moved from New York to small-town Delaware with his mother Gale; she's taken a job as a high school vice principal, and the both of them are looking for a fresh start after the death of Zach's father. He meets the girl next door Hannah Stine, the daughter of the famous children's writer R. L. Stine, a weird eccentric who homeschools Hannah and keeps her locked up inside the house. When Zach, accompanied by his new friend Champ, enters the Stine house in an attempt to invite Hannah to homecoming, they learn that Papa Stine's famous Goosebumps stories are actually based on real monsters that he had created with his imagination as a youth; he trapped them by writing them into stories, which he eventually turned into bestselling books. Thanks to shenanigans, these monsters are accidentally released from the pages of the original manuscripts, and now Zach, Hannah, Gale, and Stine must find a way to put them back in their place before they, led by Slappy the evil ventriloquist's dummy, take over and destroy the town -- all while Zach's mother and classmates at the dance are unaware of what's happening outside.

The closest comparison I could make for this film would be to the '80s cult classic The Monster Squad, albeit with the classic Universal monsters replaced with the baddies from the Goosebumps books. And like the Universal monsters, the Goosebumps books are definitely of their time (in this case, the '90s) but have still managed to outlast and transcend it, if the number of parents with young children in the audience was any indication. Stine and the monsters are the stars of the show here, most of all Slappy, who manages to bring some genuine creepiness to this film, like a PG-rated version of Chucky. He's presented as a foil for Stine (also played by Black in live-action), a monster who's haunted him and his writing for years, representing all of the anger and hatred that Stine, who had been relentlessly bullied in school, poured into his monsters and later his books. Jack Black is great in his dual role as both Stine and Slappy, stretching quite far from his goofier characters in the past (though he does get some good gags) in favor of a pair of "straight man" roles that make up half of this film's main arc. His Stine is offbeat, but ultimately a good guy, his Slappy is a genuinely threatening presence thanks to a combination of his performance and really good practical effects work, and both characters play well off of one another. Black has always been underrated as an actor, and I hope this film manages to relaunch his career after a string of duds.

The other half of this film's central story, though, wasn't as solid, and most of the problems came down to the two actors playing the teenage heroes. Dylan Minnette and Odeya Rush occasionally showed flashes of inspiration as Zach and Hannah, but too often, they came across as wooden, failing to get me that interested in either their love story or in Zach's coping with the death of his father. The way the writing handled these stories was enough to get me invested on its own, especially with how it connected them, which reminded me of a kid-friendly version of last week's The Final Girls. (Without spoiling anything, a familiarity with one Goosebumps book in particular will foreshadow this film's big twist, and while I saw it coming, I still liked how it was handled.) However, my interest in Zach and Hannah was in spite of the people playing them, who really didn't accomplish anything that most other young actors couldn't have done better, and given their substantial roles, they acted as a fairly large drag on the film. (And looking him up, I'm shocked that Minnette is only eighteen -- he looked like he was my age.) The supporting cast was better, fortunately. Amy Ryan and Jillian Bell made their most of their small roles as Zach's mother Gale and kooky aunt Lorraine, and I honestly wish they were a bit more fleshed out and got some more screen time. Ryan Lee was also great as the film's comic relief, Champ, a Goosebumps super-fan who's also a major-league scaredy-cat.

And even with this film's problems, it's light and insubstantial enough that it still floats even with them holding it back from greatness. Like I said earlier, this is a film about seeing all the monsters from the Goosebumps books invading the real world, and while some of the CGI can be suspect at times, the visual flair and stylized, almost cartoonish look given to the creatures mostly makes up for the technical shortcomings. And the film is nothing if not liberal when it comes to throwing monsters at the screen (sometimes literally). In the span of thirty minutes after the first book was opened, I saw a Yeti, evil lawn gnomes, a werewolf, a giant man-eating plant, alien soldiers with freeze rays, and a preying mantis the size of a house (which has been the money shot in all the trailers), and they all got time to shine and unleash havoc. This film is a monster mash in the truest sense of the term, and it knows what audiences came to see. And while there are jokes made at the expense of the monsters, it by and large plays it fairly straight in an attempt to build real tension (at least, as much as you can get away with given the target audience), an attempt that actually occasionally works.

The Bottom Line:

Rest easy, '90s kids, they didn't butcher your childhood memories. I don't know if I'd quite call Goosebumps this generation's version of The Monster Squad, but at its best, it definitely recaptures at least some of that children's horror-comedy magic. Recommended as both solid family entertainment and as a nostalgia trip.

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