"One story? With every monster I've ever written? Great idea... and I mean great."
I am of the opinion that there are two kinds of kids movies: Ones that trust children enough to follow a story without having to constantly distract them with lowest common denominator humor and a major action set piece every ten minutes and one's that don't. As I sat in theater 15 (of 18) on a chilly October morning to watch Goosebumps, I was inundated by trailers for films that all fit comfortably into that second category. Even the titles of these films were terrible: Norm of the North, Angry Birds: The Movie, The 5th Wave. Nevertheless, the peals of laughter at the fart jokes and pop culture references filled me with dread that I had seriously misjudged the advertising campaign for Goosebumps. Was I in for a punishing and nightmarish 100 minutes? Thankfully no, and in fact, Goosebumps was everything I wanted it to be and more.
Sold to the public—as so many films are these days—on the nostalgia that young parents have for the things they loved as kids, Goosebumps is one of the smartest and shrewdest kids movies I've seen in some time. This isn't totally surprising as it comes from the writing team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt). However, Alexander & Karaszewski's record with kids movies is pretty dire (That Darn Cat, Problem Child, Agent Cody Banks), so this could have gone either way. Thankfully screenwriter Darren Lemke has worked on some better than average kids movies like Turbo and Shrek Forever After—arguably the best of that franchise's sequels—so the combination of story and script managed to work out quite nicely.
The premise behind the film is fantastic and frankly the perfect way to bring a book series with over five dozen entries to the screen. Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) from New York City to Madison, Delaware so she can take a job as vice principal of the high school. Zach finds himself drawn to the girl living next door Hannah (Odeya Rush), but her mysterious father (Jack Black) wants him to stay away from Hannah. Zach is under the impression that Hannah's father is endangering her so he and his friend Champ (Ryan Lee) break into her house. While inside, they discover a bookshelf full of locked manuscripts for the Goosebumps series of books. In short order, we learn that Hannah's father is Goosebumps maestro R.L. Stine, and that thanks to his vivid imagination and a typewriter imbued with magical powers, the monsters from his stories can be brought to life if the manuscripts are opened.
Of course it's not long before those books start getting opened and monsters begin terrorizing the small town, but that's when the fun truly begins. While there are plenty of callbacks to the book series, this isn't something meant just for diehard fans. I've read maybe four or five of these books as they were a little past my time—demographically speaking—but there's zero exposure to the books required to enjoy this film. I'm sure there were plenty of little in-jokes thrown in for the fans, but nothing too distracting. Also, as much as I love the internet meme based around Goosebumps, I was happy to see them not pull an X-Men: The Last Stand or Snakes on a Plane and attempt to reference it in any way.
To say too much about how the story plays out would be to ruin half the fun, but I do want to point out that the film's climax is basically Cabin in the Woods for pre-teens. It's handled with lots of care as to not upset the youngest members of the audience, and the softened edges on the visual effects will keep them from getting too scared. In fact, I've seen some criticism of how bad the effects look, but frankly the cartoonishness of the cgi characters is a bit of a boon for allowing younger siblings, who might otherwise have to stay home, to enjoy the film alongside their older brothers and sisters. The film is a true horror comedy for kids, and does a marvelous job of never losing sight of its target audience.
Director Rob Letterman has worked with Black before on 2010's Gulliver's Travels, to which they slyly pay homage in this film, and the two seem to have a nice rhythm going. The film's aesthetic isn't going to revolutionize the way films are made, but it's much more successful than something like Jumanji, which had arguably a much better genre filmmaker at the helm. It's also never too proud of how clever it is, and it works as well as other self-referential comedies like 21 Jump Street without stopping to congratulate itself for its sense of humor. This sort of thing is right in Jack Black's wheelhouse and he rises to the occasion, keeping his character unlikable yet soft around the edges.
I also cannot say enough good things about the core trio of young actors in the film. Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee are all terrific young actors who understand the film and play the comedy and horror elements perfectly every time. It certainly helps that they're well written teens, but they bring a believability to the characters that lesser actors might have overlooked. In fact, if I have any complaint at all about the script, it's that the ending was a bit of a cop out. The climax nicely handles the theme of learning to let go, but as Black himself says, there's always gotta be a twist in Goosebumps, so I can't help but admire the writers' fidelity to the source material.
Goosebumps is absolutely perfect Halloween family entertainment. It's just scary enough to satisfy the older kids in the audience while also being funny and engaging enough to keep all ages entertained. Add in a rousing score by Danny Elfman, and you really couldn't ask for a more perfect October afternoon at the movies with the whole family. The door is left open for a sequel, and while it would be wholly unnecessary for them to make one from a storytelling standpoint, I'd be interested to see where they take it from here provided the same creative team was involved. This is smart genre filmmaking aimed at kids, and frankly, what more could a geeky parent ask for?
Images via Box Office Mojo