By the time the “Goosebumps” publishing phenomenon began, I was well past the age of the target audience. I worked at a bookstore for a little while in the '90s, and watching the way kids went berserk about the series, I was always curious about what made them so addictive. Now I've got a voracious reader in my house, and he's burning his way through the series, which made us the perfect pair to watch Sony's new big-budget “Goosebumps” movie.
Sony has several films on their slate that follow the “Jumanji” model, including an actual “Jumanji” reboot, and the script credited to Darren Lemke, from a story by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, is certainly efficient at setting up and unleashing the bad guys here. What once would have seemed avant-garde, blending the author of the series with his own creations, is now a big fat commercial hook. After all, this premise allows director Rob Letterman to unleash all of the most iconic villains from the series in one crazy night, which should be fairly irresistible to fans.
Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) move to a small town in Delaware to try to start over as they recover from the death of Zach's father. The first night they're in town, Zach meets Hannah (Odeya Rush), an adorable girl next door, as well as her very strange father (Jack Black), a secretive little man who warns Zach to stay away from them. Turns out, that secretive little man is the reclusive author of the “Goosebumps” series, the one and only R.L. Stine, and he keeps the original manuscripts of all of the stories in his study, each of them locked tight. That's because if the manuscripts are opened, the creatures in them come to life and are able to run free in the world. Zach means well, but his attempts to help Hannah end up unleashing all of the creatures at the same time.
One of the MVPs of the movie is Ryan Lee, who was so good in “Super 8” and on “Trophy Wife.” He's an assassin with absolutely deadly timing, and he's unapologetic about getting a laugh. He plays Champ, Zach's instant new best friend from school, and from the moment he shows up at Zach's house in a brand-new suit, ready for the Fall Semi-Formal dance, he scores laugh after laugh in pretty much every scene. He is a huge scaredy-cat, and Lee knows how to play that so it's funny and not annoying, which is a fine line. Jillian Bell, who stole big chunks of “22 Jump Street,” is very funny here as well, but she's only in a few scenes. Both Minnette and Rush are perfectly fine as the young leads, and they're perfectly amiable kids. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Jack Black, though, setting a broad comic tone that gives everyone else plenty of room to work. With as big as Black plays things, the kids can't possibly go over the top. That's pretty important when you're making a movie where your co-stars include werewolves, homicidal garden gnomes, and a self-sufficient ventriloquist's dummy.
While I didn't think the film was scary at all, my kids absolutely thought it was scary. There are plenty of laughs that punctuate the film, and there's no real danger or death in the film. People are frozen or immobilized, and there are plenty of near-misses, but Letterman is well aware of how far he can push things and still expect to be able to play it as comedy. This has the same manic energy as his animated film, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” and he has a genuine eye for building the individual scenes and set pieces. With a score by Danny Elfman and lush photography by Javier Aguirresarobe, the film is certainly slick, and Sean Haworth's production design has a big bright cartoony look that makes even the most overtly horrific scenes feel more fun than frightening.
The best thing about the film is the clarity of focus that it exhibits. There's not an ounce of fat on the film. It feels like it moves forward in every single scene, and while it's a little mechanical about how it follows three-act structure, it's almost charmingly old-fashioned about it. My ten-year-old felt like the film paid due respect to all aspects of the “Goosebumps” books, and I suspect that will be a pleasant surprise for older fans of the books who attend the film looking for a nostalgic kick. As someone with no knowledge of the actual books, I thought it was an enjoyable hour and a half with my kids, who are at that age where they are fascinated by monsters but too afraid of horror films to watch anything genuinely scary. My guess is this will have some strong word-of-mouth among both kids and parents, and while its rewards are mild, they are also consistent.
“Goosebumps” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.