In that I have never so much as picked up a Goosebumps book, I have no way of commenting on whether or not Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps movie is in any degree an approximation of its source. I know it takes a broad approach, turning author R.L. Stine (who has a cameo in the film as “Mr. Black”) into a character — played by Jack Black — in the story, rather than adapting any specific book. The premise is that Stine’s creations are a little too real and have to be kept in locked volumes of his manuscripts. Since the books are on the short side, this “R.L. Stine’s Greatest Hits” approach makes sense — especially after the failure of the attempt to film the Lemony Snicket books as a series in 2004. This also makes for a creation that is part Goosebumps movie and part Jack Black vehicle. However, as Jack Black vehicles go, this is a pretty good one. I’m not saying that his rather … let’s say, eccentric performance isn’t broad. It most certainly is — though not as much as the stills suggest — and it has a certain pandering-to-his-supposed-strengths feel to it. But, on balance, it works pretty well within the film.
The plot concerns a widowed mother (Amy Ryan) and her son Zach (Dylan Minnette) moving in next door to the reclusive Stine and his under-lock-and-key teenage daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). Naturally, Stine warns Zach to stay away from his daughter. Just as naturally — and mostly at her behest — he doesn’t. Following some fairly tedious misunderstandings, Zach and his geeky new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) break into the house and, sure enough, one of the monsters gets out of his book. On the positive side, this definitely speeds up the proceedings. It also threatens to reduce the film to the inevitable CGI-athon it was always fated to be. And, no, it’s not always very good CGI. There’s a shot later on of a werewolf rising into view behind a fruit display in a supermarket that looks less like something rising into frame than it looks like pixels being assembled. Of course, that’s what it is — but it’s not supposed to look like it.
What rescues the film — to some degree at least — is a combination of appealing characterizations, a story with something on its mind, some gorgeous production design and, best of all perhaps, a strong, central villain. This whole procession of werewolves, snowmen, garden gnomes, zombies, giant insects, mummies, vampire poodles and on and on is OK, but it lacks much in the way of point. This is supplied by giving them an evil mastermind in the form of Slappy, an evil ventriloquist’s dummy who bears a striking resemblance to Jack Black. That’s only fair since Black gives voice to the thing — and the dummy functions as the alter ego to the movie version of Stine. That’s what I meant when I said the film has something on its mind. The monsters in his books are all creations born of their creator having been bullied and alienated as a child — sort of like Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) for the bubblegum set. It’s a nice break from the usual “believe in yourself” bromides these films thrive on.
There’s no denying that Goosebumps is a good-looking production. The best of the production design is the abandoned amusement park, especially the grisly funhouse that allows for an all-too-brief genuinely creepy hall-of-mirrors scene. Whether or not the film functions — as has been suggested — as a way to get younger viewers turned on to the horror genre remains to be seen. Personally, I never needed encouragement. Regardless, this isn’t a great movie or anything like one, but it’s better than you might expect. Rated PG for scary and intense creature action and images and for some rude humor.