R. L. Stine, who sounds like a pseudonym borne of a pun, published “Goosebumps”, a series of something like 60 young adult horror stories in the nineties. For all their 350 million worldwide sales, their target market missed this reviewer by a distance. They are generic chillers: werewolves, reanimated gnomes, possessed ventriloquist dummies, zombies, evil clowns, giant locusts – you know, the sorts of things that populate Stephen King’s back catalogue – written tightly into a formula: beginning, middle and TWIST.
Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels) has again co-opted Jack Black and Sony Pictures Animation to create a kind of meta-goosebumps story – not a dramatisation of an R. L. Stine tale itself, but one about the stories, in which we meet all of them. At once.
In a leisurely opening act we meet our protagonists. Zach (Dylan Minnette) is the new kid in town, recently bereaved of his father he has arrived with his mother to start a new life. He mucks in with Champ (Ryan Lee), a buck-toothed, wisecracking buddy from school, pretty girl next door Hannah (Odeya Rush), whose profoundly uptight old man, Mr Stine (Black) instantly warns Zach to keep his feet off a property he’s not standing on, and his hands off a daughter he hasn’t touched.
But Hannah has other ideas. Nor does Zach, a red-blooded 16 year-old, need much persuading. Before long a story unfolds, courtesy of passable chemistry between Minnette and Rush and dramatic tension from Black, who is pleasingly weird but manages not to explode (as he so often does). After a couple of decent jump-scares Zach and Champ find themselves deep inside Stine’s house looking to rescue what they have concluded is a damsel in distress.
Then Letterman puts his foot down. Monsters: it being R. L. Stine’s library, there are any number of them.
The device by which we meet R. L. Stine’s menagerie is clever, but it flat-out torpedoes the burgeoning coming-of-age melodrama. The lovebirds (and Champ) are suddenly confronted by a Yeti. From there things quickly – well, they snowball. Stine’s creatures leap from the page – literally – cuing pan-directional mayhem. As convention dictates it is the children’s job to get them back in the pen.
Here Letterman abandons his nascent character arcs and hands the steering wheel to the special effects guys. In a stroke, three kids with a manageable problem are facing zombie dawn, attack of the fifty-foot grasshopper, some aliens with a freeze-ray and a ventriloquist’s dummy with father-issues.
That’s a shame. Even ten years after Matrix Revolutions took digital wizardry to its pointless logical conclusion, animation studios still can’t help throwing in the kitchen sink. But, as Nigel Tufnel would say, once you’re at ten all the way up, where can you go?
Secondly, if you blow the budget at the end of Act I, however spectacular it may seem, your Armageddon has to be, functionally, a little half-baked. How else can there still be a story to tell? You can’t wipe out the good guys, since you need them for the last act. Thus we are treated to the unedifying spectacle of a werewolf haplessly chasing teenagers around a supermarket, but never quite catching them. Outside, a giant praying mantis lays waste to the countryside but can’t lay a finger (well, proboscis) on the dramatis personae. Nor can the Abominable Snowman, nor the Gnomes, and the zombies are just hopeless.
This is the curse of CGI. The story arc gets blown to smithereens by the overwhelming temptation to show off.
It isn’t all bad by any means. Jack Black is just the kind of big personality Letterman needs to stand out against that kind of mayhem. The three young leads never get buried. The picture never loses its wit. But the payoff, as surely it must be (for how are three kids meant to close Pandora’s Box?) is preposterous. So is the attempt to undo one of Stine’s famous twists to restore the necessary happy ending. But that hardly matters. It’s an entertaining hour and a half: This is no E.T., or Labyrinth, much less a Princess Bride, but it will keep the youngsters quiet.
You can get Goosebumps in cinemas from 5th February.
Director: Rob Letterman
Stars: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell
Running Time: 103m