Viewer, Beware… You’re Not in for Much…

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So, if you actually kind of cared that a Goosebumps movie existed and came out in October of last year, raise your hand.

I can swear there are only a few of you that raised your hand and not because this blog has obviously painfully low readership. It’s because Goosebumps is not really as recognizable a property as people would like to think. When R.L. Stine’s children’s horror story series was at its peak, it was in its original run of 1992-1997 with children going through school wanting to read about monsters.

Being only a month old when the series began, I was able to grow up in elementary school with those books, but now that I’ve grown to the age of 23 and all but removed them from my mind, I wouldn’t say I was jumping at the idea of a Goosebumps movie in my adult life. I may be immune to nostalgia for the most part, but I’d say even the strongest nostalgia couldn’t promise to make a property only semi-popular at a time where it could easily be drowned out by the existence of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Tales from the Crypt for the really edgy kids to be just as successful almost two decades later. The same apathy is to be said about children today at the age I was when I was reading those books (6-10, I think I mainly read them to get a girl’s attention)… because, you see, those kids aren’t reading Goosebumps these days (or watching the tv series that aired during the same peak of its hype) nor are they missing much by not reading them.

So we’ve got two potential audiences that are still kind of a huge challenge either way you aim the production and advertising, but hey, it’s a miracle that the movie made number one at the box office the weekend that it premiered, hence why I’m writing this review right now. I wouldn’t exactly call it a financial success, but it’s not a failure either.

It just goes to show you Jack Black CAN be a marketable name.

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Because I do like to go back and think about how cool it would be to find out your girlfriend’s dad is in fact Jack Black, but alas no, the premise of the picture is on the young Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette), having moved to Madison, Delaware and within the same day being smitten by the girl next door Hannah (Odeya Rush). Hannah’s father (Black) takes an extremely misanthropic attitude to Zach and forces Hannah behind their home’s walls to alarming degree. This suspicious behavior forces Zach to make a foolhardy attempt to rescue her and, in the middle of this, he and his annoying friend Champ (Ryan Lee without explosives this time) discover the manuscripts of the Goosebumps books inside the house, revealing Black’s character to be R.L. Stine.

Unfortunately those manuscripts are more than that: they bind the actual monsters each book is based on – Slappy the Dummy (also voiced by Black), The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, The Lawn Gnomes, et. al – within their covers and fictions, and Zach and Champ’s breaking and entering put Slappy in a damn good position to be released and thus open all the manuscripts to be unleashed into the world.

Which is actually a pretty exciting premise concocted by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, to be honest, but it’s not really as centered on Black or that tale as you might like. You see, I entered the synopsis on Cooper and Hannah’s relationship and, even when the monster mash is in full swing, the movie doesn’t ever try to switch the point of view onto Stine. It remains right onto Zach’s relationship to his new town and this girl he clearly has a crush on, only to be sidelined when the movie finds it necessary to address the werewolf chasing them in the supermarket. Much less interested in being a pretty damp and limited comedy (as somebody who really rejects the idea that children’s comedy can’t be accessible to adults, this movie really tripped over itself to be family-friendly) or in a completely unthreatening horror film (which is really sad… the previously referenced Super 8 did a fantastic job at making its characters feel in danger and that’s not even a horror movie), the movie just wants to be an adolescent romance, the one sort of movie this property needs to go out of its way to fit.

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But in truth, I’m not even sure the movie would gain much from focusing on Stine for the rest of the runtime, as much as Black is the best thing the movie ever has going for it. Jack Black occurs to me as the perfect adult actor for a children’s film – a manic energy that translates so easily into juvenilia without alienating or rejecting the aspect that’s a grown dumpy man and an ability to control between the two aspects depending on what the film asks of him (hell, even his voice work for Slappy has personality and autonomy). This time around, he’s leaned more on his adult nature by making Stine a stiffened cartoon of paranoia and suspicion without making the character feel tired in any manner. It probably speaks a lot about the strength of Black’s performance that I don’t bother registering the fact that his character is based on a real person that Black shares no attributes with as far as I have seen, yet it’s entirely plausible to me in the world of the film. But Black’s Stine isn’t enough to actively steal the film away from Minnette or Rush – performances without much character to work with beyond cookie cutter teen protagonist and love interest roles – when the script breaks its back making us look at Zach or Hannah (especially in the third act of the film where a new layer fails to make me care any more than I don’t) nor gives Black many lines to turn into worthwhile comedy or fun. And of course part of that blame could go to editor Jim May, who doesn’t do a bad job per se but every scene Black is not in (which the first act is full of) feels so much like a dearth of liveliness.

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And it’s not like the rest of the underused cast has anything to do to pep the film up as much Black tries – Jillian Bell has some worthy amount of screentime but her character is also clearly annoying by the first line she screeches at Zach, Ken Marino and Amy Ryan are only there to smile and sit like they’re part of the production design with little involvement in the actual meat of the story. Which is only a slight step below how Rob Letterman’s direction doesn’t bother distinguishing this clearly famished genre film possibility from any other high school flick (Agent Cody Banks has more personality than this… Agent Cody Banks, dammit! I can’t think about this film without thinking of Frankie Muniz!). And THAT is only a slight step below how disappointing it is that you’d think a director with background in animation and special effects would have an ability to make their CGI monsters really feel a part of the scene, and there’s moments when he kind of does (the Invisible Boy’s handprints are a really nice touch… pun unintended, what’s wrong with me?), but there’s more moments when it just can’t bother doing much except getting the vampire poodle or giant praying mantis onto the screen and call it a night.

I don’t think any atmosphere would have been lost if this movie were dumped in the middle of summer rather than the month of October. Where it could have been a some kind of spooky fun for kids, it’s just an adolescent flick that only happens to have monsters and the Goosebumps label on it. Which maybe goes back to my initial musing about who Goosebumps could possibly be made for in 2015. Maybe they knew the name doesn’t do much for the picture and maybe they thought it’d be best to make the movie as anonymous as necessary without making any Goosebumps faithful mad.

My question is where could any possible Goosebumps faithful exist to be mad about this movie? And how could anyone possibly see this movie and help it win the box-office weekend except by accident? Am I just being a dummy?

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