From afar, Goosebumps could be misunderstood as a cynical nostalgia play. Every major corporation with a cache of beloved ‘90s intellectual property is currently finding a way to microwave and serve up anything that will harken back to the good old days of the (first?) Clinton administration without feeling the need to update or spin.
In that regard, the new film starring Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, and Odeya Rush could have been the cinematic equivalent of a Buzzfeed-style “Remember this thing?” listicle, but thanks to a quirky sense of humor, some nicely off-kilter performances, and genuine sweetness, it is very much not that at all.
The movie does, however, have to do some expository gymnastics to get to the good stuff. Zach (Minnette) is new in town, and the only interesting thing about the place is his next-door neighbor and her eccentric, overprotective father (Black), who happens to be the author of the Goosebumps books, R.L. Stine. In the film’s version of reality, the books exist as we know them, but their writer has the ability to conjure his terrifying creations into the real world and trap them back inside the pages if ever they were to escape. (They do.)
It’s not the most natural of conceits, but it does get things moving. The action is structured around a series of encounters with the book’s iconic monstrosities like the werewolf of Fever Swamp, the giant praying mantis, and Slappy the evil ventriloquist’s dummy (voiced by Black). The creatures are rendered in cheap-looking computer effects, which may have been intentional in order to gently tamp down the realism and scare factor for the film’s younger targeted audience. To its credit, the Goosebumps film doesn’t forget that Stine’s books were supposed to frighten kids.
Black turns in solid work here to balance out the equation, using his signature exaggerated facial expressions and pronunciation to underline that everything on the screen—even the scares—is supposed to be fun. Helping him are the continuously hilarious and always underrated Jillian Bell and Veep’s Timothy Simons, who can both make even the dullest lines laugh-worthy.
Nothing about Goosebumps is revolutionary—at a certain point you may realize that it’s as if Nickelodeon produced Cabin in the Woods—but it’s a never-boring trip to a world, where stories and imagination are powerful tools, that just might inspire kids to do the scariest thing of all: pick up a book. B