Goosebumps and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Rob Letterman
Well if Nineties Nostalgia is going to be a thing now, I guess we’ll be seeing movies like this pop up from time to time. Hell, they’re making a Power Rangers movie, so why not a Goosebumps creature feature (which will hopefully be followed by an Are you Afraid of the Dark reboot)? The trailers for this were pretty bad though with Jack Black doing his usual shtick, which I tend to like but can also be way overdone, and a story that feels like it’s been pulled right out of the hack’s guide for easy movie adaptations. So does this turn out to be a Halloween kid’s classic like Monster Squad or Hotel Transylvania, or is this another marketing exercise gone horribly wrong like The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about “young” Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mother who have just moved to Derry Maine… no wait, Madison Delaware. They’ve just moved from New York so that his mother can be the principal of the local high school that he will be attending which I guess is embarrassing or something. Anyway, Zach’s neighbor is a reclusive dude (Jack Black) living with his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) and the both of them seem rather strange. He and his new friends Champ (Ryan Lee) eventually find out that the mysterious dude is legendary writer RL Stine and that his original manuscripts contain all the monsters he has ever written about. They find this out to late however as some of the monsters have escaped including one who seems to be pulling the strings as it were. Can Zach, Champ, Hannah, and Mr. Stine stop these creatures from destroying the town? Will Zach win the heart of Hannah because every movie has to have that subplot? Can this please be a hit if for no other reason than to get Jack Black enough clout to try and make a Tenacious D sequel!?
When this movie started, I was sitting there all stuffy and with an attitude simply because of the premise of the movie. What, do we really need to make a kiddified version of that one Twilight Zone episode? This is just a weak excuse to pump money out of fans of the books and it’s gonna be all references and nothing else! Harumph!! HARUMPH I SAY!! And yet, once the monsters actually start to show up, the movie does eventually find its way and becomes an enjoyable ride with some creative set pieces and the gift of Jack Black’s natural charisma.
Now to be fair, my grumpy presumptions weren’t helped by the first third of this movie which is damn near embarrassing, what with Zach looking like a 25 year old (the actor is 19 yet still looks way too old in this) and the obnoxious humor that’s trying to be super snarky without any actual bite to it. This is what out of touch (or absurdly cynical) studio executives think is hip and relevant to today’s youth which basically translates to bad jokes that they point out are bad jokes. Seriously, didn’t 21 Jump Street raise the bar on High School humor? Do they HAVE to make it this bad still? We have three main kid actors in this and none of them are strong. Our hero Zach is a completely nondescript tough guy with a tragic backstory and a penchant for sticking his nose in other people’s business. He doesn’t have any real motivation to do half the things he’s doing other than the fact that he’s in the in the hero role and his hope that Hannah will… do whatever teenagers do in PG movies. Kiss him on the cheek? Speaking of which, Hannah’s role in this is THE GIRL and that’s about it. She’s tough, independent, and way more competent than Zach when it comes to fighting monsters, yet she doesn’t get to be the main character here because she’s THE GIRL character and is defined by her relationship to the men in her life (the love interest for Zach and the daughter of RL Stine). Now the movie does have a fairly decent plot twist in here (I SHOULD have seen it coming but I didn’t) that some could argue explains why her character is relegated to such a role, but then we start getting into The Thermian Argument (as well as creep ever closer to spoilers) and if they WERE going for something like that, then they needed to develop it further and not just let this revelation sit there without any real comment.
Now these two characters may be weak, but it gets MUCH worse with the next one. The wacky sidekick Champ is terribly written, completely useless, and absolutely unfunny. He is the bottom of the barrel of a comic relief characters and it’s painful to watch him in any of the scenes. At his best he’s a slightly humorous annoyance for Jack Black, but that really doesn’t say much about his character because we’re not laughing at his antics; were laughing at Jack Black’s reaction to his antics and the jokes that are set up for him because of that. He remind me of Josh Gad’s character from Pixels, not just because he’s a creep who is mistaken for being funny, but because he ALSO gets to win a hot chick by the end of this because that’s part of the happy ending checklist. Do we get any development for THE HOT CHICK? Nope. She just likes him because he saved her life in one scene. Well I’m sure they will have a WONDERFUL life together. Ugh…
All the kids are exasperating to watch in their own ways, and in the first third where they have nothing to work against other than themselves and a high school right out of an eighties movie. It’s not until the movie finally decide to get the ball rolling on the plot with the creatures coming out the books and wreaking havoc in the town that it actually turns out to be a pretty fun creature feature even if the mythology makes absolutely no sense. RL Stine is able to conjure dark creatures from his imagination if he writes them in a book but is then able to seal them back inside of their books. So why exactly does he have this power? Because he had allergies as a kid and was alone a lot of the time. That’s it. There’s no mummy’s curse or a magic coin or some sort of time travel mystery. It’s just that he can create creatures from his own imagination. I might have been able to ignore the silliness of the rules they had established, except the movie barely even bothers to explain them enough to know what the limitations are which is necessary to establish any meaningful stakes and risks. Later on in the movie it’s revealed that he has to write a story on his typewriter for it to work. So wait, does that mean the magic is inside the typewriter or are is the movie saying that RL Stine is super finicky? There comes a point where Jack Black can’t continue to write the story so Zach starts to fill in for him; not as a transcriber for Stine but to actually write his own ending. Wouldn’t that negate whatever power was used to conjure these creatures? Are they implying that Zach has the same powers as RL Stine and will be a great children’s author? Furthermore, how did Jack Black get any of the stories finish if the monsters were coming out of pages as he was writing them? Do they only come out when the story is finished? Does he steal them up before they have a chance to escape? None of this gets explained and everything feels like they came up with it on the fly just so they can put up a roadblock for the main characters to get past or a shortcut to a resolution.
All that said, when you put aside the lackluster mythology and the poor characterization on three of our leads to instead focus on the action and set pieces, it’s pretty damn entertaining. Not all of the monsters they use here work (I thought the Praying Mantis and Wolf Boy were sort of nerfed in their menace to keep this PG), but the ones that do work are way better than a movie that is this poorly written deserves. Of the monsters that escape from the books, the head honcho is Slappy the ventriloquist dummy who is voice by Jack Black and he’s really entertaining as a villain. He is by far the most menacing creature in the movie with some genuine pathos and an actual character. Sure, he’s an obvious Joker rip off with teleportation powers (he disappears and reappears whenever a light turns off ( b like Jason Voorhees) but he’s a damn good one to the point that I’d kind of like to see Jack Black do voice over work for the character in something. Not only that, but I like what they do with him as far as his connection to RL Stine as the Personification of his own dark side.
After a saggy and lackluster start, the movie does pick up considerably as the town goes completely nuts and Jack Black’s role becomes much more prominent. Some opening jitters can EASILY be overlooked if the rest of the movie manages to pick up the slack, right? Well, well the second act is indeed a lot of fun; the third act kind of drops the ball towards the finale. The movie is still doing a lot of cool stuff (it becomes very reminiscent of Cabin in the Woods near the end) but it makes some decisions right at the climax that deflated my enjoyment somewhat. I won’t get too specific, but they pull out a couple of woefully outdated tropes in regard to the ONLY female character in this and it seriously deflated my enjoyment of the movie, not to mention that it’s at the end when Champ WINS the lovely non-descript hot chick which is something else I could have done without. So what can we learn from this movie? Well, its strongest points are its set pieces and the comedic moments with Jack Black. Neither of these things are what I’d call integral to the plot or to any of the characters’ development, and the scenes that ARE important to the story are the weakest moments. The conclusion to Champ’s Heroic Story (facing his fears and thinking about someone other than himself) is undercut by the embarrassingly outdated clichés that it uses to reward him for his bravery. Zach may have had a moment of doubt that forced someone else to take charge and make a noble sacrifice, but said sacrifice is reversed minutes later (with some odd implications on top of it). For all of Slappy’s menacing dialogue and fiendish machinations, his ultimate plan is lackluster and his defeat isn’t all that satisfying. It feels like their reach exceeded their grasp here in that the major focus was bringing these famous characters to life and hoping that the story will be enough to tie it all together. It’s not, and the movie suffers greatly because of it. Still, it is entertaining for the most part and not nearly as bad as I was expecting it to be. It gets a pass from me because of my low expectations for it, and if you see it in the theaters you probably won’t leave disappointed. You probably won’t leave enraptured by the motion picture either, but glass half empty, glass half full, and all that.
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