I never read the Goosebumps books growing up, but my younger brother was a big fan. It was easy to understand their popularity: author R.L. Stine would take well-known monsters and insert them into our daily world in a way that was thrilling, but not unnerving. Those thrills have returned in Rob Letterman’s adaptation of the book series, and while “PG Horror” seems like an oxymoron, Goosebumps skillfully employs movie monsters to create an unabashedly good time. Even if you’ve never read a single Goosebumps book, you can tell how much love the film has for the source material, and how Letterman wanted it to leap off the page, both literally and figuratively. The result is a monster rampage that’s an absolute delight.
Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) have moved to a new town where she has a job as the school’s new principal. While Zach is getting adjusted to his new life, his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush) manages to capture his attention. The two have a nice evening together, but then she’s scuttled away by her over-protective father “Mr. Shivers” (Jack Black). When Zach hears screams from Hannah’s house, he and eager pal Champ (Ryan Lee) rush over and accidentally knock over a locked manuscript that unleashes an abominable snowman (of Pasadena). It turns out that Mr. Shivers is actually bestselling author R.L. Stine, and the manuscripts are the monsters that have been locked away. Stine’s worst fears come to light when the evil ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black) unlocks all the manuscripts and the monsters start destroying the town.
Again, I have no idea how much fans of the books will take to the material, but coming at it as an outsider, the Jumanji-with-monsters approach is a clever adaptation rather than just trying to go one or a handful of books at a time. There’s nothing wrong with stepping around the books if it serves the larger story, and screenwriter Darren Lemke made the right move in trying to throw in a bunch of monsters for the protagonists to handle. Slappy is the “main” villain, but even then he’s more of a puppeteer, leading the havoc out of revenge rather than some grand plan for world domination.
It’s anarchic, and that’s what horror on the “PG” level should be. There are certainly some monster designs and moments that will scare younger viewers, but hopefully Goosebumps will give them an entry point into a larger horror world when it comes to movie monsters. There are glimpses of Nosferatu and Elvira-style vampires along with evil clowns, mad scientists, and more while the action scenes tend to focus on the aforementioned abominable snowman as well as the Wolfman and a gigantic praying mantis. Like the books, Goosebumps functions not only as an entertaining ride on its own, but a useful primer for kids who will hopefully seek out the classic Universal Monster movies, the sci-fi monster films of the 1950s and 60s, and other touchstones.
But even if Goosebumps doesn’t lead them there, it’s still an enjoyable, funny ride on its own. It’s the good kind of kids’ film where adults can enjoy the material rather than endure it. The comedy is solid, it doesn’t rely on lowbrow comedy, and the charm comes from not only the premise, but from the characters. Minnette is a charming lead, and Black and Lee have excellent chemistry together. You can tell everyone is having fun with this cute, silly movie, and it makes the film feel even more energetic.
When I went to the set of Goosebumps last year, I did so reluctantly, and when I left, I was optimistic about the movie. It’s good to know that my optimism was well-placed, and my chief complaints about the film are that I wanted to see even more monsters (but I suppose that’s what sequels are for) and there’s a reveal at the end that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Howver, these are minor qualms in a film that should delight fans of the books or anyone who’s open to a monstrously fun family film.