It’s easy to be cynical about the prospect of Goosebumps. It’s a movie that clearly seems to be aimed at cashing in on the conveniently Halloween-themed nostalgia of an adult audience, as well as providing seemingly dopey, insufferable drivel for young kids of today. Pair that with the fact that Jack Black is starring as beloved author, R.L. Stine, a fine actor, though certainly not the most serious one, and you have a movie that predictably got plenty of backlash simply for existing, long before it hit theatres.
Well, it might very much surprise you to hear that Goosebumps is actually surprisingly solid. You’d never imagine it, but it’s far better than you probably would have given it credit for upon seeing the pitch, had you grown up on the previously massive Goosebumps line of spooky childrens’ books. The movie is no masterpiece, and it’s not shy about being a goofy popcorn flick that is more about light-hearted Halloween mischief than it is truly scaring people that are any older than six, but for what it is, Goosebumps is actually a pretty fun movie, and you’ll get even more out of it if you really did grow up on the Goosebumps novels back in the 90’s!
Goosebumps stars Zach, played by Dylan Minnette, whom fans of Stine’s books may recognize from the television anthology of The Haunting Hour, or genre fans may at the very least recall as Marvel Cinematic Universe villain, Donnie Gill/Blizzard on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. He was also in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, another family flick that was far better than it had any right to be.
Anyway, Zach moves to Madison, Delaware, a boring small town, after his mother gets a job as a vice principal there. Zach’s mother, Gale is played by Amy Ryan, who spends most of the movie in the background, but has a good rapport with Minnette whenever she is on screen, making her a very appealing presence. It’s easy to get the sense that these two are close and likable, especially after it’s revealed early that they moved away from New York to escape the memories of the family’s recently dead husband and father. The movie doesn’t dwell on this for long however, especially when Jillian Bell’s embarrassing Aunt Lorraine often comes in to steal the show with many of the movie’s best jokes.
Things properly kick off however when Zach meets reclusive young girl, Hannah, played by Odeya Rush. Hannah takes a liking to Zach, but is often pulled away by her shut-in, nasty father, Mr. Shivers, played by Jack Black. Of course, the marketing already revealed that Black is in actuality a fictionalized version of Goosebumps author, R.L. Stine, though the movie treats this like a surprise. Black has nothing in common with the real-life Stine, but he does actually turn in a solid performance, adding a sinister, but playful tic to his voice and mannerisms, which makes Stine a caricature, but an entertaining one. Adding to the appeal of the character is the fact that his demons feel real and relatable, even for a young audience, and it’s amazing at how surprisingly well Goosebumps executed his character.
Even more clever is the fact that Black voices the only two monsters in the movie that have any speaking lines, those being the Invisible Boy, from My Best Friend is Invisible, and Slappy, from the especially beloved Night of the Living Dummy books. This makes sense, since the monsters are supposed to be the creations of Black’s character, so having Black voice them as well was an inspired decision, especially when he does such a great job of it. His turn as Slappy is particularly appealing, with Slappy serving as the lead antagonist and leader of the monsters, and having a sort of family-friendly Joker vibe, as a creation that actively revels in pranks and destruction, representing the most misanthropic side of Stine’s personality in the movie.
Rounding off the likable ensemble of leads is Champ, played by Ryan Lee, who is currently Zach’s only friend at his new school, and makes no qualms about being a selfish coward. Champ feels like an effective parody of characters that you love to hate in horror movies, being comically useless, but somehow not losing his charm, especially when you see how much he adores R.L. Stine. He’s a silly sidekick, but the movie makes him just as likable as the rest, so there doesn’t come any point where the character will get on your nerves, even when he does often simply exist to cause trouble.
There are also some really fun supporting characters, such as two bumbling cops that prove as ineffectual as you’d think, and a socially awkward teacher that keeps trying to flirt with Gale at the wrong times, who is actually played by Ken Marino of all people. The other monsters don’t get speaking parts, but that’s fine, since Slappy pretty much serves as the voice of all of them.
In the end, this leads to a cast that feels well-balanced and deftly-written, especially for a kid-friendly movie. Even adults will have a lot of fun with the appealing performances and surprisingly smart script behind Goosebumps, which manages to be silly without ever becoming stupid, and that’s pretty commendable!
On paper, the plot of Goosebumps seems pretty dicey, even if it does lead to an excuse to bring many of the classic Goosebumps books’ monsters together in a single plot. Sadly, you don’t get anywhere close to all of them, as very beloved Goosebumps monsters like the Monster Blood and the Haunted Mask are entirely absent (but both of their books are mentioned in passing), though it’s perhaps wise that Goosebumps didn’t overstuff the movie. Beyond the practical reason of saving certain monsters for sequels that Sony Pictures is apparently already trying to fast-track, having too many monsters in Goosebumps would have made it an over-crowded mess, and would have quickly had the spectacle collapsing under its own weight.
This is another element that has Goosebumps wisely exercising restraint, and going for quality over quantity. It makes the most out of the monsters it does feature, with the giant praying mantis from A Shocker on Shock Street, the werewolf from The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the yeti from The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and the sentient gnomes from Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes getting the biggest set pieces, as revealed by the trailers.
This leads to a tightly-executed story that focuses on being entertaining, without trying too hard to lazily tie into the source library for its own sake. You see passing cameos of monsters like the mummy from The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and the executioner from A Night in Terror Tower, and R.L. Stine even conspicuously seems to own the titular antique from The Cuckoo Clock of Doom in his basement, but they don’t get in the way of the monsters that are strategically positioned in such a way so that they can tell the best story. Even the idea of the typewriter that brings stories to life is something taken right out of a Goosebumps book, as that very same typewriter was a key plot element in The Blob that Ate Everyone.
The story naturally does have a handful of plot holes, namely in that the movie never explains exactly how the magic typewriter came into Stine’s possession, and how he even figured out that he could bring monsters to life in the first place, but it’s forgivable to an extent, since it gives some room for audiences to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. This will prove especially rewarding for kids as well, since they’ll get a plot that’s easy to understand without becoming overly complex, yet not to the point where it lacks surprising substance for the adult crowd.
Like I said, the story in Goosebumps is better than it has any right to be, especially when the movie seems to be so aggressively trying to cash in on the nostalgia of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings. There’s even some surprisingly solid twists thrown in, which make the plot feel rewarding to see through, even as you’re enjoying the fun and light-hearted mischief so much.
Goosebumps is helmed by Rob Letterman, which might make you nervous at first, since his previous movie, also a collaboration with Jack Black, was 2010’s horrendous adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels. Letterman also did some work for DreamWorks Animation, namely in helming Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens, which, while both reasonably good, certainly don’t number among the studio’s bigger hits.
Surprisingly though, Letterman manages to make a movie that feels spooky without being scary, and fun without being immature. He manages to calculate some well-executed jump scares, even for a family movie, and the way that Letterman frames the action helps it feel urgent, but still roots it in good fun. Even the character scenes are helmed well, with the movie not being overly reliant on dialogue to fill in what even young audiences can easily piece together themselves, and some emotional scenes actually do manage to pull at the heartstrings a bit.
Sure, Goosebumps never truly develops any teeth, and it naturally doesn’t compromise its Hollywood ending, and annoying desire to sequel-bait (even if it’s at least earned that, unlike many sequel-baiting family movies), but Letterman seems to take the best elements of an animated movie, and successfully bring them to live-action, making things glossy, but not completely outside of a real, relatable place. Letterman’s biggest strength is actually making Jack Black’s R.L. Stine caricature feel like he could be a real person, with real demons that personify themselves as the author’s familiar monsters, and that alone gives Goosebumps surprising strength and appeal as a family Halloween movie!
Goosebumps’ fluffy score is composed by none other than Danny Elfman, who is actually perfect for a movie like this. Elfman brings out a score not wholly unlike some of the scores he did for various Tim Burton-helmed classics, but with the added edge removed, so as to make it more… Cuddly, for lack of a better term. Even as characters are pursued by monsters and plagued with danger, the score prevents the movie from becoming too intense, effectively helping audiences stay firmly in the realm of having a good time, and not honestly fearing for the characters, albeit in a good way. Goosebumps is a personal story of human connection after all, not one about murders and mental scarring. Elfman’s score wisely reinforces that.
The rest of the audio is generally pretty fluffy itself, again, making sure to avoid the movie becoming too intense. There’s a handful of destructive moments, but most of the sound effects are pretty exaggerated, and sometimes even downright cartoonish. It works though, continuing to help Goosebumps deliver a more light-hearted take on a Halloween offering, allowing children especially to enjoy the Halloween spirit, without having to subject themselves to anything upsetting.
Goosebumps is a live-action movie for the most part, but it is something of an animation hybrid, as the monster designs and other such special effects were actually put together by Sony Pictures Animation, ironically not long after delivering another Halloween-themed family movie to the big screen in Hotel Transylvania 2 last month. The monster designs are pretty great too! They look and feel real, but not too real, never quite reaching the point where they’d frighten children. Even then though, the monsters still have sort of a spooky air, and will feel pleasant and lifelike to adults who loved the Goosebumps novels growing up.
The only low point of what’s otherwise pretty strong visual design for a family movie is the 3D presentation, which is unfortunately pretty lacklustre. The 3D elements barely come into play, with only a couple of weak 3D effects ever showing up throughout the entire runtime. The 3D conversion is the sole element of Goosebumps that actually does feel lazy and phoned in, as if Sony rushed it to make the Halloween release window. It’s not the fault of director, Rob Letterman, who actually does seem to try and shoot the movie to be 3D-friendly in most of the action scenes and such, but for whatever reason, the final 3D job just turned out murky and ill-defined, adding absolutely nothing to the experience. If you’d rather watch Goosebumps flat in 2D, I’d honestly recommend that you do so, as the 3D cut of the movie is pretty disappointing.
Still, there’s a clear amount of effort put into bringing the Goosebumps monsters to life in a way that balances making them nostalgically satisfying, yet also accessible for newcomers and children. They don’t necessarily feel tame, but they don’t become truly vicious either. Some of them are even almost cute. Whatever the case though, Goosebumps made a wise decision in having Sony Pictures Animation do the monster effects, which led to ideal family-friendly monster style that is sure to please most viewers, regardless of their age and prior Goosebumps experience.
I never imagined that I would say this about a movie like Goosebumps, but, it could actually be a new Halloween classic in-the-making for family audiences! Even adults who simply loved the Goosebumps novels when they were kids should be quite pleased with it, as the movie delivers a surprisingly strong set of personalities, wrapped around relatable themes of the importance of connection with other people. Making things even better is that the movie actually has some pretty great comedy in it, even for discerning adults, and as long as you’re willing to keep an open mind about a movie that initially seems to be made simply to exploit a nostalgic brand, Goosebumps is actually quite a lot of fun!
I’d skip the 3D cut if you could care less about that, since that’s the one element of the movie’s presentation that really doesn’t work, beyond a couple of plot holes that are bound to come up here and there, but Goosebumps is far from a lazy cash-in. There’s actually a lot of effort put into it, between the inspired script, the good monster designs, the wise desire to not overstuff the cast, and an overall sense of mischievous entertainment value. It’s perhaps one of the best recent examples of a movie that proves that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, pun not intended, and that includes movies that adapt a so-called ‘nostalgically profitable’ license.
Amazingly, Sony actually put their best foot forward with Goosebumps, and their faith in the project has proven to be rewarding. Like I said, the movie isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but as far as family-friendly Halloween movies go, it’s the best one to come along in a while. Whether you have kids, or are a kid-at-heart yourself that’s new to Goosebumps, or simply an adult that looks upon those books with nostalgic fondness, Goosebumps is well-deserving of your attention this Halloween, even if the scariest thing about the movie is how surprisingly well it turned out!
- Likable leads, particularly Jack Black's R.L. Stine
- Great monster selection that's quality-over-quantity
- Fun humour and spooky mischief blend very well
- A few plot holes and contrivances
- 3D presentation is pretty lacklustre