The universe is full of mysteries: did the Kepler telescope discover an advanced alien mega-structure around the star KIC 8462852, or just an amazingly coincidental series of meteor shadows? Is human consciousness the universe’s way of experiencing itself? And more pressingly, why on earth was this movie not made fifteen years earlier?
It’s a question that I find oddly fascinating. As an ’89 kid, I grew up smack in the heart of the Goosebumps generation; that generation has since become twentysomethings, going through higher education, entering the workforce, in some cases putting out creative works of their own – and, most relevantly, living in the age of Ironic Goosebumps Fandom. I think a whole lot of us appreciate how these books scared us as kids – I personally credit Goosebumps with helping me to begin reading novels as a kid, that’s how young I was when Stine dug his hooks in – but we’ve also read Blogger Beware, and while blog author Troy Steele admits that his roasts of the books are done out of a “less than hidden fondness” for the source material, a good read of that site will confirm that, yes, we owe it to ourselves (if we haven’t already) to critically re-examine these books, without losing what made us appreciate them in the first place.
And, yes, there are still Goosebumps books being made; they’ve been relaunched under the banner of HorrorLand. But they’ve flown under the radar for a lot of people who Bumped the Goose in the 90s. And make no mistake, this is a very self-aware movie – it really seems like this is a film playing on my generation’s nostalgia rather than the genuine fandom of the kids of today.
As the average R.L. Stine novel just doesn’t have the meat on its bones to make for a straight-up feature-length adaptation of any single book, this film goes for a meta-mixtape approach, with the Goosebumps rogues’ gallery being unleashed in the ‘real world’, after for so long being held under lock and key by Stine himself, as played by Jack Black.
Goosebumps readers past and present, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a kid moves to a new town, there’s a girl-next-door named Hannah, he has a plucky, eccentric best friend, and…yeah, it’s almost like we’re witnessing a Goosebumps story within a story that’s basically a tribute to Goosebumps. Could it really have gone any other way?
It’s not a film that tries to convince us that Goosebumps was the be-all of horror – there’s a funny little running gag where it becomes clear that Stine as depicted in this movie launches into Inferiority Complex Mode whenever someone brings up Stephen King (though granted, they’re not really similar writers except in the most reductive of definitions – different demographics, extremely different writing styles…) – but the film appreciates the books for what we had built them up to be in our minds during the 90s.
What I mean by that is, for example, Slappy the Dummy was often paraded about in Goosebumpia as the dreaded Big Bad of the Goosebumps library, and that’s the role he takes here, as the puppet master (pun completely intended) of the other monsters. Whereas if we rip off our nostalgia goggles, we find that in the actual Living Dummy books, Slappy never really aspired to much more than mean pranks (often involving vomit, because reasons) and trying to take preteen girls as his slaves for purposes unknown, and wow, that sounds, like, really wrong when I read it back, but um, anyway.
Point is, this film attempts to bring us the larger-than-life Goosebumps of our childhoods, which was in some ways more than the sum of its parts. If there’s a statement to be made in the subtext there, it’s that we shouldn’t let the harsh light of reality completely destroy what these books meant to us as children: sure, they were drenched with the literary equivalent of cheap jumpscares, sure, some of the twists were just argghh, and sure, the quality varied drastically from book to book, but still, there was something there that elevated them above all that, somehow. This film’s very existence should remind us of that. I have to admit, sometimes it’s good to revel in a message like this.
Jack Black’s take on playing R.L. Stine is…unusual. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s a particularly eccentric performance unseen in cinema, but amongst Black’s previous work and in the context of it being a depiction of a real person. He often tends to slide back into a very particular character archetype – next time you watch School Of Rock, Tenacious D and Kung Fu Panda, check out how similar Dewey, Jables and Po actually are – but in portraying R.L. Stine, he doesn’t really…do that. Nor does he splice himself into the known mannerisms of the real author.
It might sound like I’m saying that Black has a limited repertoire and that he’ll never be the next Daniel Day-Lewis, but I’m not saying that, and he’s not trying to be! Rather, his performance of Stine is so far removed from the real author, I think, to create that sense of disparity between the reality we see in the film, and the real world. After all, it isn’t like Black particularly looks anything like Stine to begin with. Rather, I think it’s valuable for us to look at this role much like how the film handles Slappy: as a reflection of what our child minds built up R.L. Stine to be – a kooky eccentric hiding dark secrets.
Incidentally, Jack Black also voices Slappy, and there’s some commentary there about how an author’s creations are a reflection of their own psyche, which I think has a certain amount of merit.
Is it a ‘good’ movie? It depends on what you mean by ‘good’. The monster CG is a far cry from Avatar, put it that way, but a lot of these creatures really do feel like three-dimensional representations of the source material, and there’s something endearing about the colourful, animated quality of it all.
The plot itself is more-or-less a cipher to get the monsters loose, but it’s quick-paced enough to entertain kids and packed with enough nods and references to entertain nostalgic adults.
Put it this way: it’s an entertaining tribute to the book series that enthralled a lot of us as kids, but I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much out of it if I didn’t have that nostalgia connection. If you’ve never touched a Goosebumps book in your life, then this film won’t come up nearly as much of a treat.
That said, there are nods to two Goosebumps books – The Ghost Next Door and The Blob That Ate Everyone – which are surprisingly clever and not just a surface-level reference. Rather, the film’s main plot actually echoes the plots of these two books in a surprisingly seamless way.
All in, it’s not a bad way to knock back an hour and a half. Just make sure you don’t trip over all the nostalgia.