In theory, R.L. Stine’s series of supernatural novels for kids, known collectively as Goosebumps, would make perfect fodder for an endless march of child-friendly horror movies — there are 182 books to choose from, including some 62 in the original series plus later spin-offs like Give Yourself Goosebumps. But one specific problem is that the books do not feature recurring protagonists — there’s no main character to provide continuity from story to story – so a series that directly adapted the books would have to be done anthology-style, which is not necessarily a recipe for good box office.
The solution for Sony Pictures, director Rob Letterman, and producers Deborah Forte and Neal Moritz — the team that has finally brought Goosebumps to the big screen this week — was to go meta: make the movie the ultimate Goosebumps adventure, with as many monsters as possible from the books crammed into the storyline, and make R.L. Stine himself, or at least a snarky, vaguely sociopathic version of him played by Jack Black, the central character in the tale. Or at least one of them — this is aimed largely at kids after all, so there’s also a hunky young man named Zach (Dylan Minnette), an attractive young woman known as Hannah (Odeya Rush) and a dorky sidekick known as Champ (Ryan Lee).
As Goosebumps opens, Zach and his mom (an underused Amy Ryan) have just moved from the big city to a small town, a distressing chain of events for Zach until he spies Hannah living next door with her dad, who he discovers is Goosebumps author R.L. Stine. Intrigued but also concerned for Hannah – who seems to be having issues with her dad – Zach investigates the family further with Champ’s help and discovers an astonishing secret: all the monsters in Stine’s stories exist but are kept locked away from the real world in Stine’s original manuscripts. When those are accidentally opened, the creatures are unleashed into the town, and it’s up to Zach, Hannah, Champ, and an understandably pissed-off Stine to get them back where they belong.
It’s actually a clever premise, with potentially all kinds of interesting things to say about the role of scary stories in our lives (as a way to exorcise or channel real-life terrors, especially for kids), and the movie starts out as a lot of fun thanks to some witty banter between the leads and Black’s always charismatic and exaggerated demeanor. But the problem is that instead of maybe choosing, say, five of Stine’s best-loved creations and letting them free to wreak havoc, the movie just goes straight over the top and unleashes dozens of them in a relentless parade that ends up turning the film into a noisy, chaotic, confusing bore.
The leader of the monster uprising – Slappy the Dummy – is an entertaining creation that serves as Stine’s id and chief antagonist (Black voices him). But beyond him, none of the other creatures have any real personality and the practical effects are eventually outweighed by the CG ones as more grandiose beasties are added to the mix (the CG Blob that comes in near the end of the picture is particularly a digital eyesore). As our quartet of heroes rush pell-mell from one situation to another, any real spookiness or suspense is just buried under the movie’s quest to be as loud and frantic as possible. It’s a shame, really; from Minions to Hotel Transylvania 2 to this, kids’ movies are training youngsters to expect sensory overload every time the lights go down.
Fortunately Black does a lot of heavy lifting to keep us entertained amidst the digital onslaught; he plays Stine mostly as another twisted Jack Black character, but his comments on his work (each story is broken down as “the beginning, the middle, and the twist”) and his narcissism keep the character amusing. The kids get to keep the post-modern commentary on the action going for a while as well, even if none of them truly stand out. Minnette seems like he’s just been rolled off the “handsome young male” assembly line, but the edgier Lee manages to keep Champ from becoming too annoying and gets some of the better meta jokes.
Still, none of it leaves much of an impression because none of it gets to sink in or stick around for very long before the movie charges spasmodically forward again. The pile-up of monsters and gags simply becomes exhausting, capturing none of the simple charms of Stine’s short, told-around-the-campfire stories. And frankly, if this movie is a big hit, and a sequel is ordered, where can they go from here when they’ve deployed so many of Stine’s creations already? Sporadically entertaining or amusing at best, the overstuffed Goosebumps becomes the equivalent of eating too much Halloween candy – you don’t want to look at it again when you’re done.
Goosebumps is out in theaters Friday (Oct. 16).