I have never read R.L. Stine's books, not a single one. But there was still respect there for what they were, horror stories for children. Not just spooky stories though, his books were filled with the types of horrors that would make most children stay up at night wondering what lurks under their bed or in their closet. The Goosebumps books are designed to give kids the willies (or goosebumps) without delving deep into the more traditional adult oriented gorefests out there and while I am far from an expert on the subject, over 400 million books sold worldwide seems to indicate they work. As for the film however things aren't exactly up to the same standards as the material it is based on. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: PG
Film Runtime: 1 hr 43 min
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date: October 16th, 2015
Likes: Jack Black, the horror/comedy tone
Neutral: Throwing in too much too quickly
Hates: All the plotholes and inconsistencies
Potential to be a lucrative franchise?: If only the powers that be didn't use every single R.L. Stine creation in a single movie then perhaps.
OK, stay with me here because after all the bad discussed here (and there is a lot) there is some good that follows that may help you decide whether or not to give the film a chance. So hang in there, this is gonna be a (goose)bumpy ride.
Goosebumps was one of the most frustratingly inconsistent movie experiences I have had in a long time. There are these moments of brilliance sprinkled all throughout but any hint of fulfilling its true potential is marred by a series of baffling narrative decisions along with more coincidences than you could fill a dump truck with. It is as if you found a friend who shared all the same interests as you and in some ways is even more passionate about them than you but upon hanging out with them you begin to discover that their passion is expressed in a way where they truly don't understand what it is that makes that thing you love so special. There is an almost adverse effect as the more they try to show you how much they love it they are in fact making it worse with every passing second.
If you have any sort of affinity for what I like to call the small town under siege genre then on the surface level Goosebumps is tailor made for you. Classics like Gremlins, Tremors, Arachnophobia and countless others have all contributed to the genre in their own unique and clever ways while also establishing a horror sub-genre all their own. Unlike most other genres there are a near limitless number of ways this formula can be converted to fit any story you like be it toys come to life (Small Soldiers), giant mutant spiders (Eight Legged Freaks) or an alien life form (The Blob), there is no way to go wrong just so long as you understand what makes each and every one of these examples unique while keeping with said formula.
With Goosebumps the filmmakers clearly understand the basics of the formula which is to have a local discover something strange and then slowly build to the point where the town is overrun and mass chaos ensues. Where director Rob Letterman goes wrong is with all those pesky little details that alone don't really amount to much. One such example is early on when establishing that the only way to trap a monster is to get in real close with a book to suck them back in but by the end proceeds to completely dismiss the idea and allow them to be captured from any distance with no reason given for the rule change. Then when similar hiccups occur they begin to matter when those problems begin to stack.
Let's break this down shall we and start with some simple problems before diving headfirst into the more complex ones. Right out the gate we are presented with a number of perplexing story decisions. Usually our lead character is a native to the town where either this mysterious thing/person arrives in some form or another which they immediately notice is out of place or irregular. Here our main character Zach (Dylan Minnette) is the new kid in town and he happens to move in next door to the strange people. Not really a huge departure from the formula but when we discover that Zach is forcefed a new friend in the shape of Champ (Ryan Lee) who he forces to join him on his quest to save the hot girl next door Hannah (Odeya Rush, a dead ringer for a young Mila Kunis) from her unstable father R.L. Stine (Jack Black) on the exact same day he meets him it begs the question why go through all this trouble? Instead just have Zach be the town resident and have the Stine's be the strange new neighbors, problem solved.
This is then compounded with the fact that Hannah and her father are nomads who move from town to town and have only been living there a few years. Wouldn't that make them a better candidate for being the new family in town? If that hasn't convinced you yet then perhaps the half baked attempt to give a reason for Zach and his mom (played by the criminally underutilized Amy Ryan) for leaving New York to live in the small town of Madison Delaware (another staple of the genre with the big city folks moving into a small town). We learn that Zach's dad had died which is a fine enough reason for our characters to make the move and he even uses that arc as a way to get closer to Hannah early on, but it has absolutely no bearing on what happens later because it is never mentioned ever again, not even in an obvious metaphor where he either finds a new father figure or learns to let go. Nope, it is only ever brought up so we know why they moved and for him to have something to talk to Hannah about, that's it.
We aren't even out of the first 20 minutes yet and there are still a ton of things to mention. How about the standard quirky small town folks? How about the cops? You know, the ones so far removed from reality that they resemble more a bumbling comedy duo than any real authority figures. Well we do get that but once again instead of taking advantage of their quirkiness they get taken out of the picture almost immediately which begs the question why even bother introducing them if only to get rid of them minutes later? Then there are the other residents of Madison who apparently are either all High School students or work at the High School since we absolutely no one else. Where is everyone? It helps when the audience actually gets to see the town before it gets run into the ground and here when the town comes under siege it means absolutely nothing.
Think of Gremlins and how we got to meet a number of townsfolk who all had their own distinct personalities well before any problems occurred. It helped establish a sense of community and made the eventual chaos more impactful since we actually got a moment to know these people. The only character we get outside the High School and our main group of kids is Zach's aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) whose only purpose in the film seems to be that the screenwriters needed a deus ex machina to get our main characters out of a jam by having her magically work at the very grocery store they are under attack at which she makes the bewildering decision to go to during all out pandemonium instead of going to the safety of her own home.
Think we are done yet? Oh no my friend, we are just getting started. Let's take a second to look at those magic books, you know, the ones that contain all of R.L. Stine's creations. When Zach and Champ break into Stine's house to rescue Hannah they of course go directly to the book shelf where they discover that all the books are locked. Luckily for them and the screenwriters the key to open these highly dangerous books is RIGHT ON THE TABLE NEXT TO THEM. Why would someone go through all the trouble to create locks on all their books only to leave the sole key to open them right next to the book shelf in plain sight for all to see? You think that is bad just you wait.
So, we now know the books can only be opened with the sacred key which is learnt upon them releasing the Abominable Snowman where he proceeds to wreck the house and run away. However we then discover that Mr. Snowman had wrecked the book shelf allowing all the books to fall down. No problem right? Their locked so what could possibly...oh wait, what? The lock just opened on it's own? What the f**k? What kind of BS is this s**t? Not only do we have locked books that have their key right next to them but we now learn you don't even need the f**king key because if a book falls too hard it just pops open? Mind you, this all may seem petty but these events all happen within a few minutes where we see a rule clearly established and then broken within the exact same scene with nary an explanation as to why this has happened.
How about some plotholes? You like those right? Well the screenwriters certainly do as there are some real doozies here. We have learned now that R.L. Stine and his daughter have only lived in Madison for about 4 years AND that Stine is living under a fake identity so that nobody knows who he is. So with that in mind how and why is Stine's magic typewriter in the High School trophy case? Does he secretly place it in every H.S. they move near? Nobody would just let him put it in there unless they knew who he was which they don't so that makes absolutely no sense. That leads into another consistency issue when the gang needs to get to the school to get said typewriter but are cut off by a giant mantis and are forced to backtrack but then somehow magically wind up right next to the very same High School when going in the opposite direction...whaaaaaaa?
Here is by far my favorite conundrum though, try to follow. Oh and spoilers lie ahead for those who care so here is a shout out...SPOILER WARNING! Anyway, we learn that Hannah is in fact an entity from the books just like all the monsters. We also learn that the plan to get all the monsters back in the book after Slappy (also voiced by Jack Black) burns them all is for Stine to write a brand new book that includes ALL the monsters so they can be sucked back into the book. Forget for a second the logistics surrounding writing an entire book in under an hour, instead let us focus on the finale which involves Zach having to finish the book for Stine which has the unfortunate side effect of trapping Hannah within its pages as well.
The reason for this is that Zach had written that ALL monsters were to return to the book which logically includes Hannah. However, at the end of the film it is discovered that the Invisible Boy is still loose whom exclaims to Stine, "Ha, you forgot one!". This is a problem because we saw Stine writing the part where he was systematically writing every single name so they would be included and be sucked up by the book and it makes sense with all the monsters he might forget one or two. BUT by that logic if Hannah was swallowed up by the book and the Invisible Boy wasn't, did Stine write Hannah's name down too and if so why the hell would he do that?
The other possible explanation is that it didn't matter what Stine wrote down and the book just automatically swallowed up all monsters regardless if they were named or not since Zach wrote ALL MONSTERS. This becomes problematic once again by the fact that the Invisible Boy was not included. Now we could just revert back to the rule that the monsters have to be close to the book to be sucked in but as we already noted earlier that rule was broken because monsters from all over the place were being sucked in. So this means that by having the Invisible Boy at the end it fundamentally destroys any and all reasoning for how anything could have happened the way it did.
If you are thinking write now that I am over thinking all of this well you may be right, but that doesn't stop any of this from being true. How about that happy ending where we see....SPOILERS AGAIN!...Zach and Hannah walk off as if everything will be fine. Did nobody stop and think for a second that in actuality that is probably one of the most f'ded up endings ever? We know that Hannah doesn't age, she is eternally 16 years old, so does that mean when Zach is 50 they are still a thing? Oh, that's right, Stine could have wrote her so that she ages...but why would he do that or better yet why wouldn't he have done that in the first place?
It's time to move ahead and look at the film from a different perspective. Going back to the town under siege formula, forget about all the inconsistencies, broken rules and plotholes because as annoying as those things are they are for more forgivable than this next item up for dissection which is none other than the film's overall pacing. This also ties into the screenwriter's penchant for wanting to over stuff the film with just about every single R.L. Stine monster ever created. Did nobody stop and think that maybe they might want to save something for a sequel?
As mentioned earlier the first monster to be released is the Abominable Snowman. He runs around for a minute or two until he is quickly sucked back into the book. It is then when Slappy appears out of that book with the "broken" lock. At this point the film is doing a decent enough job of slowly introducing the audience to these malicious entities but that feeling is short lived once Slappy decides to start opening all the books immediately. There is literally a scene where we have this wide angle shot of Madison as Slappy drives around town tossing books out the window left and right. The problem with this of course is that we are only about 30 to 40 minutes into the film with about another hour to go and the s**t has already hit the fan.
The problem this poses is that the film literally blows its wad far too soon leaving almost nothing to anticipate for the finale. Taking into account the pacing of a similar film like Gremlins or even Jumanji which cruise at a steady 30 mph where the conflict is introduced with the problems gradually added over the course of the film until we reach the finale where all hell breaks loose, Goosebumps goes about 60 mph there entire time. Now this isn't to say that all films should follow the exact same rules, however in this case thinking outside the box has resulted in a very unbalanced film where both the first and third acts are its weakest parts. If the monsters from the books where introduced at a more gradual pace it not only would give the audience new experiences as the film progresses but also allow each monster to make some sort of impression which as it stands now aside from Slappy, the werewolf, the mantis and perhaps the gnomes, the other fifty or so are more or less fodder.
So if you have stuck with me this far let's talk about some of the more positive points and yes, there is some good here if you give yourself over to the film's inherent lunacy. There is an undeniable sense of fun that the film evokes along with an energy and charm to the performances that helps the audience look past most of its problems simply because it is so earnest in its need to entertain us, as flawed as the execution might be. Another area that the film comes through on is keeping a consistent tone which is more difficult a task than many believe, especially for the horror/comedy genre. The jokes are kind of cheeseball and the horror elements are hampered slightly with a ton of CGI, but it all works well together for the most part in keeping us engaged in the action. The last and most important area that Goosebumps succeeds in though is arguably its least pronounced or expected and that is the chemistry between all the actors.
Don't think for a minute that the script is responsible for any empathy you feel towards any of these characters, it is a testament to the power of casting that Goosebumps comes out on top when it comes to whether or not you like any of these characters. With the sole exception of Jack Black as R.L. Stine, whose curious accent is more distracting than endearing, all the characters are a fun and lively bunch with the highlight being the budding romance between Zach and Hannah that ends up being the one consistent thing in the entire film. If anything Goosebumps succeeds in spite of itself and all its in your face special effects where most effects heavy films fail, the human element.
After all this it may sound like faint praise to say I enjoyed Goosebumps but that is the plain and simple truth of it. Yes all the plotholes, inconsistencies and other ill conceived elements are frustrating but we generally tend to only get frustrated at something when we see potential in it and there is a ton of potential in Goosebumps. It's just unfortunate that it failed to reach said potential and is relegated to more of a passing entertainment than becoming the instant holiday classic it so deserves to be. Viewer beware, Goosebumps is far from a bad experience and not exactly good enough to recommend but if you feel so inclined to see what all the fuss is about for yourself...well, there are worse things out there.
You know you are in trouble out the gate when you reference Jumanji in a positive way. But Goosebumps isn't without its merits which are mostly in thanks to its strong source material and an overall sense of mischievous fun found in all the performances by an extremely likable cast of kids. All is not lost with Goosebumps as its many failures are superseded by enough charm, wit and inventiveness to make up for most all of its shortcomings. It may not go down as a classic but it works well enough to give both kids and adults a decent distraction for the holidays.