R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps book series has been making children squirm since 1992, and now there’s a movie that aims to capture that same mix of creepy monsters and silliness. But the scariest thing in Goosebumps is Jack Black’s weird accent. And this film is strictly for kids.
Really, that the frights in this long-awaited release (Tim Burton was first attached in the 1990s; Shark Tale director Rob Letterman finally saw it through) are rather gentle is not surprising. Though author Stine’s ghoulies are spooky on the page, these are books for kids, so there’s also always a bit of goofy humor in their DNA. The big screen offers ample chances to illustrate (mostly via CG) Stine’s signature eerie-funny tone: the poodle that morphs from fluffy sweetness to vampire menace in seconds flat (see above); the nutty yet horrific sight of several dozen weaponized garden gnomes; the hulking werewolf whose oozing drool is just as alarming as its teeth and claws.
Rather than adapting one or a few Stine books straight from the page, the script deploys a “destroy all monsters” strategy, as a fictionalized version of Stine (Jack Black) reluctantly joins a group of high-schoolers—including new dude in town Zach (Dylan Minnette) and Stine’s manic-pixie daughter (Odeya Rush)—who’ve accidentally unleashed Stine’s creations. Turns out the author hasn’t merely been churning out best-sellers all these years; his words, written on a very special typewriter, have actually been giving life to real monsters. Ideally, these beasties are contained within the pages of their magical manuscripts, but you know ... meddling kids.
That’s it—that’s the entire plot, and most of Goosebumps is scene upon scene of monsters on the rampage, threatening a school dance, wiping out cell-phone towers, taking down an entire small-town police department, etc. while our heroes, who caused this whole mess in the first place, race to put a stop to all the chaos. Though the trailer suggests the kids use things they’ve learned from the Goosebumps books to defeat individual critters, that’s not really the solution they end up deploying. Seriously, there are just SO MANY monsters, it’s hard to be afraid of any one in particular, and the whole thing is more or less one giant chase scene until the climax. (And, duh, the twist.)
To be fair, there are also some character-building moments in which Zach confronts some decidedly non-fantastical fears, like facing life after experiencing the devastating loss of a parent. There are also some Bedazzler jokes, at the expense of Zach’s pitifully man-hungry aunt (Jillian Bell).
Jack Black is by now one of those actors who can make an audience chuckle by simply appearing onscreen and, like, wiggling his eyebrows, but he doesn’t just phone this one in. He brings a certain pathos to Stine. Here’s a guy whose (supernaturally-enhanced) talents have made him rich and successful, but also closed-off and lonely, and definitely not Father of the Year material. But since this is Black, he also affects a weird, 1930s-movie-villain accent throughout, for no apparent reason. He also applies his voice talents to Stine’s ultimate nemesis, evil dummy Slappy, and the pesky Invisible Boy.
Ultimately, the real power of the Goosebumps series is that it gets kids to read, so the movie’s suggestion that cracking open a book might unchain, say, a giant praying mantis is maybe not the best message to send. But hopefully ... hopefully ... seeing this movie might lead future horrorhounds to the bookstore or the library, and to realize that while Black is funny (and a talking dummy driving a haunted car is pretty cool to see), actually reading the stories and using one’s own imagination to bring them to life offers the ultimate satisfaction.