Despite its human charms, 'Goosebumps' can't do much with its CGI monster madness
Goosebumps Columbia Pictures
Director: Rob Letterman
Screenplay: Darren Lemke, based on the books by R.L. Stine
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Jack Black, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan and Jillian Bell
Rated PG / 1 hour, 43 minutes
October 16, 2015
(out of four)
The old "strength in numbers" adage has never been a particularly good fit when it comes to cinematic adversaries. If superhero movies have taught us anything, it's that, more often than not, the success rate is inversely proportional to the number of villains involved.
So when a movie's collective antagonist is no less than the entire library of creatures from a book series that runs dozens of titles deep, this should be considered a red flag. Not a deal-breaker, not an insurmountable problem, but at least something of a warning. This is the basic conceit behind Goosebumps, which in a way feels like a throwback to the kind of movie that would have been made in the early 2000s when mass-scale CGI was relatively new and everyone went insane. It's like Van Helsing with marginally better special effects. Both films were seemingly made with the sole intent of throwing as many CGI creations on screen as possible.
My initial protest about having too many villains was partly facetious, of course - because in a case like this, the overabundance of fantastical foes is the very point. We're in a world that suddenly gets overrun by R.L. Stine's inventions. But the problem is, director Rob Letterman and writer Darren Lemke never really get a handle on exactly what to do with this glut of beasts and monsters. It's not like the characters are on the run from an army of orcs or zombies - this army is made up of dozens of individual creatures, almost none of which have enough screen time to have any impact. It's like seeing a movie made up entirely of cameos.
Letterman gives a select few their own individual setpiece - Invisible Boy, the Abominable Snowman, a werewolf, a ventriloquist's dummy - but nearly everyone else is a background player, which basically defeats the purpose. There's virtually no interaction between them, either - it's like the horror-movie equivalent of the Sgt. Pepper's album cover. Just a bunch of disparate figures cropped out of their natural context and arbitrarily placed side by side.
Exceptions can always be made, and we've certainly seen this kitchen-sink approach work, most notably in the spectacular, cathartic madness of The Cabin in the Woods' third act. But you've got to have someone who can harness the mad chaos of it all the way Drew Goddard did, and Letterman isn't up to the task. The Cabin climax worked so brilliantly because of the out-of-control pandemonium itself - and even so, a very high percentage of the horror villains we see on screen get noticed, and get to have their big moment. Goosebumps needed a true action director, and someone with real imagination and wit to make something like this work. You can imagine someone like Joe Dante working wonders with this premise. Or Robert Zemeckis. Or Sam Raimi.
In fact, maybe replicating the Van Helsing era wasn't far enough of a throwback; maybe what a movie like this needed was a bit of '80s excess. Perhaps Dante can come on board to helm the sequel - Goosebumps 2: The New Batch.
The best modern template, aside from Cabin, would probably be The Lego Movie, which managed to feature an ungodly number of pop-culture characters and make all of their appearances land. Goosebumps, for all the money spent on effects and all the source material it got to mine for its ideas, feels strangely inert - particularly as the collection of computer-drawn fiends gets bigger and more out of hand.
It may be counter-intuitive, but the human cast vastly outshines the CGI that is clearly the main attraction. Kudos to the producers, who clearly went out of their way to round up a strong cast, all of whom are punching below their weight in a movie that doesn't deserve them. It's not just the presence of someone like Jack Black (playing a fictionalized version of Stine himself), but the casting of certified scene-stealers like Ken Marino, Jillian Bell and Timothy Simons in peripheral roles. The two main characters - new-to-the-neighborhood teen Zach (Dylan Minnette) and the cute girl-next-door, Hannah (Odeya Rush), Stine's overprotected daughter - are equally strong, and even though the film wastes the talents of Amy Ryan (who plays Zach's mom), she still classes up the joint every time she's on screen. The performances even survive (at least as much as possible) the completely phony emotional beats the screenplay provides for them.
What they can't ultimately survive is the lifeless structure of a film that establishes a problem and immediately begins stampeding toward an easy solution. There may not have been high expectations for Goosebumps, but the final product proves that there's actually something to work with here - it just needs someone who really knows how to open it up. Instead it plays like an expensive special-effects reel pretending to be a movie.