‘Goosebumps’ a fun, clever take on R.L. Stine’s famous book series

By Griffin Lyons

Official Goosebumps Movie Facebook Page
(Official Goosebumps Movie Facebook Page)

Director Rob Letterman and writers Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Kraszewski have pulled off a smart trick in the course of adapting R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” books into a single movie of the same name.

Rather than only adapt one or a few of the books, they haven’t just made a “Goosebumps” movie, but a movie about “Goosebumps” itself, setting their story in a world where the “Goosebumps” are a series of short novels aimed at younger readers, just like ours. A few small details have changed, of course.

The film begins with teenaged Zach (Dylan Minnette) moving into sleepy Madison, Delaware, with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan), who has been hired as the new vice principal at the local high school. Relocating from New York City, Zach’s grief for his recently deceased father is compounded by his boredom and loneliness as the new student at his school.

Thankfully, and in keeping with the tone it will eventually adopt, the film opts to have the likeable Minnette express this through a penchant for sarcasm, rather than prolonged teenage surliness.

Moving into his new home, Zach meets Hannah (Odeya Rush), a girl his age living next door. Mysteriously, Hannah is not enrolled at the high school, and her reclusive, moodily eccentric father (Jack Black) warns Zach to leave his daughter alone. Naturally, per any execution of the classic “Goosebumps” formula, this does not come to pass.

Performances are what buoy the film’s first 20 to 30 minutes, as it struggles to figure out how to approach the story. The tone veers between Disney sentiment (single parent, kid on an adventure), Disney teen movie, high school comedy (there is a conference-in-the-gym scene where Gale is introduced to the students that has weak echoes of “Mean Girls”), or underdog comedy-drama – Zach makes the acquaintance in the same scene of Champ (Ryan Lee), an affable loser better known to his classmates as “Chump.”

Everything ordinary goes out the window in short order, seemingly making that question of tone moot, but it’s also where the film begins to effectively blend recognizable tropes and elements from roughly the last two decades of similar teen movies.

One night shortly after their first meeting, Hannah shows Zach an abandoned amusement park. Clambering up the Ferris wheel into one of its seats, the two share a tender conversation and come a little closer to letting down their respective guards.

When Hannah’s father discovers that Zach has been seeing his daughter, he freaks out and cuts Zach off from her entirely. Convinced that something is wrong when Hannah ceases to appear anywhere, Zach tries to discover her whereabouts.

In the process, he enlists Champ to help him break into the house, where they stumble onto a shelf of books that seem to be the original manuscripts of R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series. But according to the film, R.L. Stine hasn’t been seen in years. Could it be?

Yes. Jack Black is R.L. Stine, with a thin fictional sheen (namely, he’s twenty-some years younger than the real author), and the original manuscripts are the prisons of the terrible creatures that Stine, lonely and resentful of the world in his youth, literally conjured out of his imagination. He and Hannah, it seems, have changed addresses regularly over the years to keep them from falling into the wrong hands, hence the secrecy and paranoia.

At first it appears that Jack Black’s shtick threatens to make every line feel over-acted. His performance, however, snaps into place like a puzzle piece with the escape of one, then another, then all of Stine’s creations, led by the menacing ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black in a turn that is half-Cryptkeeper, half-Mark Hamill’s Joker).

It is by this point, following the amusement park scene, that the tone of the movie finishes coming together, and kicks into gear with fun riffs on “Goosebumps” plots, teen movies, and horror tropes with a sensibility comparable to one of the better iterations of the “Scooby-Doo” cartoons.

The humor is a boost, reminding us that high stakes aren’t necessarily the entire objective of things. In a quiet moment of the film, as Zach picks a lock, Champ asks him, “Wow, where’d you learn that, New York?” Zach looks at him as he opens the door, and replies, “No. YouTube.”

The emotional stakes of “Goosebumps,” monsters or no monsters, never get extremely serious, because they don’t need to be. “Goosebumps” is a satisfying, amusing movie that does its source material justice by playfully exploring its formula and clichés.

Griffin Lyons can be reached at [email protected].