Director – Rob Letterman
Writer – Darren Lemke
Starring – Jack Black, Dylan Minette, Odeya Rush
“Reader beware, you’re in for a scare’ was one of the defining quotes of my childhood. As an avid member of the Goosebumps collectors club, and thus having received several books a month, I can safely consider myself somewhat an expert on the subject. I also enjoyed the T.V adaptation that was surprisingly good. So, unsurprisingly, due to the recent bastardisation of my childhood by Hollywood’s hands (a la Transformers), I was somewhat dreading it. I needn’t have worried, as this is surprisingly not awful.
The story is, truth be told, relatively clever. After moving to a new neighbourhood with his mother, young Zach Cooper (Minette) quickly forms a bond with the neighbour, Hannah (Rush), though he is wary of her peculiar and intimidating father, known only as Mr.Shivers (Black). One night, after hearing a scream from the house, he decides to break in and unwittingly discovers the family’s secret; Mr.Shivers is actually that famous author R.L Stine, and the creatures he writes about are real, and the books are his way of containing them. After mistakenly allowing the sinister puppet Slappy to enter the world, all hell breaks loose, and the kids and Stine have to team up to save the day.
The screenplay starts off surprisingly clever, as does the narrative. The meta-twist of Black playing Stine is predictable, within the narrative, and knowing the name of film’s title; nevertheless, it’s at least an attempt to be clever which deserves some commendation. There are many lazier ways they could have done this. Also, the choice of Slappy the dummy was the primary antagonist was fantastic, for a fan such as myself, as Slappy had always been the iconic villain of the franchise. This is fan service, and it works pretty well.
The dialogue is mostly witty, full of decent jokes that actually hit more often than they miss. One great moments features a unique subvertion of expectations, as, after seeing scratches upon a wall, a comic-relief character provides the expositional dialogue we hate so much. ‘Do you see those scratches?’ he says, to which the protagonist, matching the general exasperation of audiences when they hear such dialogue, retorts, ‘Of course I do.’ It’s a nice little touch that plays with cinematic conventions. Unfortunately, and annoyingly, the writer seemingly forgets his own joke later, and deploys the same dialogue in a non ironic way. This is a really annoying inconsistency that prevents the film from elevating beyond decent to good or great.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a sole example of inconsistencies. A lot of them exist, and a lot of questions go unanswered. For example, if the monsters escape the manuscript when they are opened, why do they not escape the published versions? Hell, how does the publisher even print without having his face torn off by a monster? It’s a massive plot hole, and one that could have easily be explained with some throwaway dialogue. I.E. ‘I self publish.’ Instead it’s left unaddressed and, honestly, really annoyed me for the rest of the film.
Then we get the procession of monsters are Slappy opens more and more books, eventually being so overloaded with threats that there’s no real tension at any moment. Even when faced down with a giant blob I thought to myself ‘Well, if the werewolf and giant mantis didn’t get them, why worry about this?’. The problem with a meta-story along these lines is you really need to think this through, or it collapses. Also the fan service quickly becomes tiresome as they cram every possible monster throughout the franchise into one movie. Why? If this was ever intended to kick-start a franchise, it seems somewhat of a foolish move to play all your cards the first time.
Also, don’t tell me ‘it’s a kid’s film’. Any reasonably intelligent child would still ponder these points. I know ten year old me would have. If your child doesn’t stop to question these things past the age of six, I’d be concerned. Also, if you’re going to deploy every trick from the novel’s long history, why miss out Monster Blood? Arguably that’s one of the most popular books in the series and a staple throughout Goosebumps history. Of course that’s an entirely personal gripe, and thus can’t really be held against the film. Still, it’s a big miss.
Minette is surprisingly good in what is a pretty bland role, his natural charisma shining through and elevating it beyond expectations. Rush is less impressive, but not terrible and Black is, well, he’s Jack Black. Being Jack Black. He never steps outside his comfort zone, but he does a serviceable job, and is his usual relatively entertaining self.
I was also surprised by the decent cinematography on show, right up we see the monsters. The CGI is dodgy, to say the least, and none of it is really impressive. In an era post Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, it looks downright shoddy. It’s a damn shame as well, because, as stated, the rest of the visual elements are all pretty solid.
If you were a fan of the series of books then this will begin as a fun trip down nostalgia lane, before it attempts to do arguably more than it needed to, gets a bit lost, goes on for longer that necessary, and eventually stumbles over the finish line. Viewer beware you’re in for a bit of a surprise but, alas, not a scare.