There are films, like Fantastic Four, that people seemingly want to be bad. (Though, in their defense, that film was bad.) Then there are films, like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that want to be good, but are still no better than before. Goosebumps, however, is one of those rare films that looks bad based on all empirical evidence, but is actually enjoyable… for the most part.
The trailers for Goosebumps did not do this film any favors. With bad puns and over-the-top acting surrounding Dylan Minnette, the previews were giving off a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” vibe. So, needless to say, I went into the theater wearing fifty shades of bias — which hopefully makes what I’m going to tell you now delightful to hear…
Goosebumps is not a cringe fest. Rather than adapting one book from the world of R.L. Stine, the teen horror author is a character in the film, played by Jack Black. When a young boy named Zach (Minnette) moves to a new town after the death of his father, he becomes infatuated with his next-door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush). The catch is that she has an over-protective father, who turns out to be Stine, living incognito in this town.
After breaking into their house, thinking that there was some child endangerment going on, Zach accidentally opens one of Stine’s original Goosebumps books, which have the ability to release real-life incarnations of the monsters from within their pages. Soon, the town is overrun by monstrosities like The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and the gargantuan Praying Mantis from a Shocker on Shock Street.
Some early reviews have linked Goosebumps to Jumanji, and it does share some of the same characteristics — fantastical creatures come to life out of an inanimate object (the game board is traded for books) and it has enough pep to be family-appropriate. However, I’d say it’s more like Hocus Pocus, or a horror story told by the Pitch Perfect Bellas while they sit around the campfire. There’s no denying the (at times) overbearing camp from the dialogue, and that the often-hollow, sitcom-worthy jokes from Minnette (“Are they friendly? Nope, definitely not friendly”) has been done a million times before. Also, the overreacting to what’s going on is worthy of an eye roll or two. Even the special effects of the monsters are typical of something from a Disney Channel original movie. But all of these points can be justified.
Goosebumps is meant to be a family film. The horrors are only slightly more horrific than what we see on something like Halloween Town. The werewolf, for one, is so CG that even when it’s chasing Zach and his friends, it’s painfully obvious that it’s not real. Even if there could be something that would scare kids, the previously mentioned groaners that are meant to be jokes will put them at ease. Where adults will find Goosebumps a lot of fun is in the limited but surprising standout performances. Jillian Bell (the gal who stole our funny bones in 22 Jump Street) plays Zach’s aunt. Though what she can do is limited to the dialogue, she delivers her lines with her signature brand of spunk. The same goes for Black, who has his moments here and there, like in throwing shade at Stephen King.
All of this still amounts to the equivalent of watching a TV film with your kids that you secretly enjoy and maybe watch again by yourself after they’ve gone to bed. It’s not like the real Goosebumps books from the real Stine that you remember reading, perhaps only during the day because reading them at night gave you nightmares for a week. However, adults looking for an enjoyable hit of nostalgia to the days of Slappy the ventriloquist dummy — who’s mildly terrifying in the Goosebumps TV series but, again, bearable in this film adaptation — will find it in this film, while giving the little ones a fresh batch of expected one-liners to repeat ad nauseam.