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Review: Goosebumps

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Please don’t hate me for being indifferent to Goosebumps back in my days as a preteen. When R.L. Stine’s series of children’s horror fiction books debuted in 1992 and continued until 1997 (with 62 releases), besides frankly not recalling either the books or the subsequent TV series being hugely popular in my Italian homeland, the truth is that my precocious fascination with the real deal when it comes to scary stuff, had led me to sneakily watch Twin Peaks and read Stephen King right before becoming obsessed with The X-Files.

Now, even if I’d been a fan of Stine’s franchise as a child, I still would’ve found this film version ofGoosebumps starring beloved comedic force of nature Jack Black a hugely missed opportunity. What could’ve been in fact a cool and stylish rendition of the books is nothing more than bland and cheaply executed mainstream Hollywood children fare. Maybe it’s no coincidence how the source material took this long to finally get made into a feature film since Sony acquired the rights to the property in 2008. Yet, the final script by Darren Lemke (who co-wrote Shrek Forever After and Jack the Giant Slayer), based on previous drafts from other writers, is riddled with clichés and sticks too much to the Hollywood formula.

Built around an overtly meta premise where Jack Black plays none other than R.L. Stine himself living as a recluse with his homeschooled (fictional) teenage daughter Hannah (The Giver’s Odeya Rush), the film centers around Zac (Prisoners’ Dylan Minnette), your typical American-teen-with-Abercrombie-looks, who having recently lost his father, moves to Madison, Delaware with his mother (an underused Amy Ryan) where she got a new job. They obviously wind up living next door to Stine and Zac promptly develops a crush on the neighbour’s daughter who’s constantly hustled by her jealous and protective father and aches to have a life.

Whilst the writers try to make us believe that Zac’s connection with Hannah stems from sharing their status of outsider living with a single parent, it’s pathetically obvious that the girl’s young-Mila-Kunis looks do a number on the boy’s hormones, especially when one evening she drags him all the way up the Ferris wheel of an abandoned amusement park in the woods. Inevitably caught in flagrante delicto, Stine locks up Hannah and gives Zach his last warning to steer clear from his property. But when the boy hears father and daughter argue loudly, he’s convinced that Hannah may be in danger and eventually sneaks into his neighbours’ abode with the help of super-nerdy Champ (Super 8’s Ryan Lee), the only friend he’s accidentally made at his new school.

The boys discover a bookcase filled with some sort of journals sealed with locks and when they open one, all hell breaks loose as the Abominable Snowman magically pops out of the pages in the flesh. Champ realises how those are the manuscripts of the “Goosebumps” books by author R. L. Stine who has allegedly vanished into thin air. The boys’ geek-out only lasts a moment though as the creature wrecks havoc and escapes after knocking other books open. An overly worried Hannah shows up safe and sound from upstairs and the boys join forces with her to chase after the fugitive creatures and trap them back in the books they broke out of.

Needless to say that the task is way harder than they could handle alone but when R. L. Stine inevitably joins the gang, being the only one who actually knows how to deal with the problem, things get out of hand. One of his creations, Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy, has freed all the other creatures and burnt all the books so they can’t get captured: it’s his revenge against his creator for having been put on locked down. The only way to undo this mess is for Stine to write a new book which features all the scary characters he’s ever created so he can trap them all at once which of course is easier said than done as the gang needs to contain the damage at the same time.

Apparently, the first attempt at making a Goosebumps film was in 1998 with Tim Burton producing, but because it was only going to be a TV movie, the budget was not suitable to do it justice and the project fell through until Sony picked up the rights. Yet, almost 20 years later, this cinematic version ironically looks like it could’ve totally been made for television. I actually wish Tim Burton had considered directing the project himself since he would’ve probably turned it into something personal and cinematic (at least the Burton from back then). Sadly, on this occasion, Rob Letterman, who directed Shark Tale (2004),Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) and another Jack Black’s starrer, the rather forgettable Gulliver’s Travels(2010), delivers 90 awkwardly paced minutes of yawn-and-cringe-inducing shenanigans where genuine scares are nowhere to be found and the humour is as thin as it is repetitive.

Sure, despite not being a Goosebumps aficionado, I understand this is supposed to be innocuous fun for middle schoolers based on cheesy children’s horror books, yet one can’t help but wonder how the same material would’ve been interpreted by more inventive and inspired artistic voices. It’s a real shame this is a dud, given the pretty good cast at hand, but the issues start with the script and when you see comedic talents such as Party Down’s Ken Marino reduced to almost an extra and 22 Jump Street’s Jillian Bell to a stereotypical comic relief, you get the picture.

Jack Black does his best with his physical comedy, but with all due respect he’s no Jim Carrey, whilst the talented trio of youngsters are let down by such predictable material and they get no chance to shine. With all that said, there is still something to be saved as thematically, the film tries to raise a question of philosophical nature which is linked to a spoiler-filled plot point I will skip. And of course, some comedic moments still deliver the goods, thanks to the gifted actors. I’m not trying to say Goosebumps is a bad movie, and it will probably do for fans and specifically those who are young and reading the books now. For adults who grew up with it, it will probably feel like those books had better remained sealed.

2-out-of-5

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