Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps is an amiable family matinee that comes so close to being something more that I walked out slightly disappointed in spite of the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed myself for a great deal of its running time. A riff on R.L. Stine’s enormously popular series of children’s horror stories, at its best it’s a kids’ movie like Joe Dante’s Explorers or some of the better Pixar entries. While many filmmakers in recent years seem to be motivated by their love of the ’80s, Goosebumps is the first film I’ve seen that actually recreates the charm of something like The Goonies or (again, from Dante) Gremlins and successfully updates it rather than merely imitating it.
The best storytelling in the movie, most of which comes in the first 30 minutes, likely stems from the contributions of screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who are responsible for three of the greatest American screenplays of the last half-century, all of them unconventional biopics: The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, and the singular Ed Wood. For Goosebumps, they’ve come up with a clever premise that enables them to use as many of R.L. Stine’s monsters as possible: In a sort of family-friendly take on Adaptation, Stine himself (Jack Black) is a character. Our hero, teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette), has moved in next door to a cute girl (Odeya Rush), whose dad is the famous kids’ horror author R.L. Stine. Stine’s secret is that his imagination has made the monsters he writes about real, and when Zach inadvertently lets some of them loose from Stine’s house, the author and the kids have to save their town from destruction.
Goosebumps takes more time establishing its characters than many fantasy films of its type, and this is where it earns comparison with Dante’s work. Zach and his would-be love interest Hannah have a lovely, easy rapport with each other, particularly in a date to an old amusement park that’s no longer operational. Letterman and the writers take real care crafting the teen romance step-by-step, in a manner that feels honest, plausible—while the rest of the film is larger than life. But once the monsters get loose, Goosebumps switches to autopilot. What follows is a series of mechanical set pieces in which the actors stop interacting with each other and face off against computer-generated creatures who barely even seem to be in the same room—sometimes even in the same movie.
It’s not that the effects are technically flawed—the monsters look terrific, and the destruction they engage in isn’t any less convincing than what you see in any given Marvel movie—the film’s greatest flaw is that this kind of action, in which little happens other than digital creatures flattening things at a relentless pace with no sense of rhythm or shape to the drama, has now become the default in American studio movies. Goosebumps is so warm in its first half—there is shame in how it just devolves into every other summer special effects orgy.
The best movies from the tradition Goosebumps is emulating are so well served by their practical special effects. Gremlins presents a virtually non-stop barrage of action and violence in its second half, as Goosebumps does, but because the creatures are actual puppets with whom the actors are interacting, maybe, there’s still an organic quality that’s completely missing from Goosebumps. Dante’s sequences are designed in a manner that seems more motivated by character and behavior than simply by what the technology can do.
The irony is that even with all the CGI, Goosebumps doesn’t really live up to the potential of Alexander and Karaszewski’s premise. There are a lot of monsters running around wreaking havoc, but very few of them are individuated in any significant way, and the audience is just beholden to a mass of chaos moving through the town: The whole point of incorporating as many of Stine’s creations as possible into one movie is more or less lost. Luckily, Goosebumps recovers a great deal of its charm in its final act, when a revelation about Stine’s work creates new implications for the teenage romance, leading to a sweet, resonant finale. To be fair, most of its target audience probably won’t feel let down by any of it, used as they are to going to movies that are smothered in soul-deadening computer effects from beginning to end. Which maybe underestimates the youth of America, but it’s still refreshing to get two-thirds of a kids’ movie with some wit and style.
Director: Rob Letterman
Writer: Darren Lemke, Larry Karaszweski, Scott Alexander
Starring: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.