“Goosebumps” is based in a series of kids’ books from the mid-90s. The books were advertised as scary, but more than anything they were just weird. Most of them saw a monster du jour making life difficult for a bland teenage main character until they got really dangerous and had to be stopped. The idea for the movie had such potential. Make some well-meaning teenagers defend their town against every monster from the “Goosebumps” universe. Throw in the manic energy of Jack Black as series creator R. L. Stine and you’ve got the recipe for one of the funniest and most exciting live-action kids’ movie in a long time. Instead what we get is one of the most lifeless, unfunny, and excruciating films of the year.
The story sees teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) move to a new town with his mother (Amy Ryan). He falls instantly in love with his new neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is ordered to stay away from her by her father (Black). One night he thinks he hears Hannah in danger, but the cops are no help. He grabs Champ (Ryan Lee), an annoying new friend from school, and they break into the neighbor’s house. There they discover a collection of “Goosebumps” manuscripts, open one out of curiosity, and the monster from the story (“The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena”) springs to life and starts wreaking havoc.
Zach, Hannah, and Champ go off to try and contain the Yeti, and are saved at the last minute by Hannah’s father, who it turns out is R.L. Stine. He created all the “Goosebumps” monsters (plus a bonus non-monster) and trapped them in books. Things seem to be under control, except that in the fray another book got knocked open, “Night of the Living Dummy.” Slappy the evil ventriloquist dummy is now on the loose and he’s not happy about being trapped in a book since the 90s. He unleashes the other monsters and then the chaos really begins.
I’m not thrilled with the selection of monsters that are featured prominently in the movie. Don’t get me wrong, Slappy is iconic enough that he should be the lead antagonist, though I don’t know how the movie manages to make a psychotic ventriloquist dummy not scary. The Werewolf of Fever Swamp is fine, though a bit redundant with another large mammal having already been released. I’m even okay with the silly piranha-like lawn gnomes from “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes” because it’s fun to see them get destroyed. But do we have to waste time with lesser creatures like generic zombies and the lame Invisible Boy? I kept waiting for the inside-out people from “I Live in Your Basement,” but they never show up, not even when the characters go in the basement. Other fan favorites (I believe I caught only the briefest glimpse of The Haunted Mask) are relegated to group shots.
The real problem with the movie is that, in short, nothing works. The monsters aren’t scary or effective, not because they’re supposed to secretly be funny (as this movie would have you believe), but because the special effects are so unconvincing. The movie can’t decide on a set of rules for Stine’s monster-creating or trapping-in-book powers. Worst of all, almost every joke is absolutely terrible, especially when it comes to Champ, who even from the trailers I could tell was going to be one of the most grating characters in recent memory.
“Goosebumps” is rated PG for scary and intense creature action images, and for some rude humor. Its running time is 103 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]