Jack Black's Goosebumps Is A Nostalgia Ride (Even If You've Never Read The Books)

Reader beware, you're in for a... fun time.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜… I have never read a Goosebumps book. By the time the eager young bookworm in me was moving onto "proper" books (i.e. no illustrations), Harry Potter was exploding and contemporary children's fiction changing, making the garish covers and pulpy titles of R. L. Stine's plentiful novels a bit past it (I was an anti-nineties kid even at the time). I once picked up one of the "Choose your own adventure" spin-offs from the school library, but without the love for the material it felt rather monotonous. This is very important to establish when talking about the Goosebumps movie, because Rob Letterman's film appears to thrive on fond memories for those books. Countless stories, from the big (Slappy, the creepy ventriloquist dummy, is the main villain) to the obscure (deadly gnomes) get name-checked and Stine himself is a main character, played by a sometimes-gurning but mostly well-timed Jack Black. This means there's a lot of the film that requires nostalgia to work - monsters are set-up only to quickly despatched with little fanfare, their threat relying on pre-existing knowledge (or hoping their archetypes - everything in Stein's oeuvre a deadly spin on something familiar to kids - are enough to carry the threat).
In fact, in an approach similar to Jurassic World and Creed, it even masquerades as a continuation of the original mythology, with the books themselves contrived to exist within the movie's continuity. In this world, Stine isn't just a great, successful, writer (and the film has great fun sending up the quirks of the Goosebumps phenomenon with contextual gags that work outside of mere referencing), but the creator of real monsters that he's trapped inside the original manuscripts. They all inevitably get set loose, and that's where the plot of the movie comes in. So, yes, it's a movie driven by nostalgia. And yet there's more to that than just rebooting a millenially-beloved book series. You see, the entire thing is really a throwback to kids movies of yore - with its typical high school setting, teenage heroes and overbearing sense of recklessness this feels like an eighties adventure flick, something that could have once-upon-a-time been directed by Chris Columbus; in an ironic twist for me, there's definite echoes of the first Harry Potter in here. Even though my knowledge of the books is negligible, it was impossible to not get engaged in the movie because, thematically, it was so welcomingly familiar.
There are certain elements that work purely on their own merits, particularly in the humour - jokes about the competitive nature between Stine and "Steve" King sit right alongside quips comparing Detroit to North Korea - but for the most part this is a fun homage. Fun, not perfect, mind; the action scenes in particular can be hit and miss, with CGI restrictions making the sequences feel clumsy and hurting the execution of more physical comedy, while modern concerns seems to have neutered the sense of fear that always appeared to hang around the franchise (although I'm talking as a post-Human Centipede critic, so I am a bit warped). But to get hung up on that stuff misses that Goosebumps is managing to offer something for everyone; adults get a way to relive their youth, regardless of if they've read the books, and kids get, well, a solid kids movie that, like The Goonies in decades past, feels made for them. I'm unlikely to rush out and pick up Little Shop Of Hamsters, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a good time.
Goosebumps is in UK cinemas from 5th February.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.