"Stephen King is no slouch," commented a member of the Movie Fan Facebook Page staff. The man has published 60 books, which have sold over 350 million copies. "Wait a minute," you say. "Why start a review of a movie based on R.L. Stine's books by talking about Stephen King?" Fair question. Well, Stine has been called "the Stephen King of children's literature." Beyond that, you may be surprised to learn that Stine has bested the famously prolific King by publishing hundreds of books, which have sold over 400 million copies! Think about that. It's enough to… give you goose bumps. That, of course, is the name of Stine's most popular series of books, brought to the big screen in the film "Goosebumps" (PG, 1:43).
Fans of the series may wonder which of the books is the basis for the movie. The answer is none of them – and all of them. Rather than adapting any one of Stine's books, which are, admittedly, relatively short (as Stephen King exclaims, "Ah-HAH! See?"), this film imagines a world in which Stine's monsters come to life and terrorize a small town, while R.L. Stein himself, along with a few local teenagers, attempt to recapture the creatures and save the town. I won't spoil the movie, except to say that, in the end, we Movie Fans get a film that is as exciting and delightful as any of the books that inspired this story.
The film has Jack Black portraying Stine as an unfriendly recluse in the tiny (fictional) town of Madison, Delaware. Showing Stine as a movie character which we get to know as a man, but is only a fictionalized version of the real person recalls movies like Charlie Kaufman's 1999 fantasy comedy-drama "Being John Malkovich" or Matthew LeBlanc (starting in 2011) playing himself as an adorable jerk in the Showtime comedy series "Episodes". Black's Stine calls himself Mr. Shivers. He's a widower who lives in a big house with his kind, but mischievous 16-year-old daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush), whom he homeschools.
Moving in right next door is Madison High School's new assistant principal, recently widowed Gale Cooper (Amy Ryan), and her teenage son, Zach (Dylan Minnette), still grieving the loss of his father. Gale's sweetly clueless sister, Loraine (Jillian Bell) greets them with open arms, but Zach and Gale simply have a lot of adjusting to do – and new people to meet. Gale is almost immediately hit on by shy fellow educator, Coach Carr (Ken Marino), while an awkward nerd ironically named Champ (Ryan Lee) traps the new guy into a friendship. It's a good thing for Zach that Hannah is such a pleasure to be around.
One night when Zach looks towards his new neighbor's house and thinks he sees Mr. Shivers abusing Hannah, he calls Champ and they steal into the house. Zach and Champ see that Hannah's okay, but not before they find a key and open a locked "Goosebumps" manuscript among many on a shelf in Mr. Shivers' study. The book is "The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena" and unlocking the manuscript allows a large, furry creature to literally jump off the page. The three teens run after him, Hannah telling them that the monster can only be re-captured by sucking him back into the book from whence he came. The Abominable Snowman wreaks havoc on the town until Mr. Shivers shows up to save the day.
In the destruction that the creature caused in the study, all the manuscripts fell to the floor and one of them popped open – one releasing the evil Slappy the Dummy. Slappy unleashes complete mayhem in Madison – on the night of a big high school dance nonetheless. The police (a hilarious Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund) are no help, but few people would be. That ventriloquist dummy serves as the ringleader of a gang of dangerous and destructive creations including a wolfman, a maniacal clown, a herd of garden gnomes and a gargantuan praying mantis. They all want revenge on their creator for keeping them locked up so long. And Stein is the only one who even has a chance of stopping them.
When Stine's creations come to life, besides clear memories of Robin Williams' 1995 hit "Jumanji", this situation reminds us of Emma Thompson's author writing Will Ferrell's character into existence in 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction", or the underseen 1979 thriller "Time After Time" in which the character of H.G. Wells (author of the sci-fi classic "The Time Machine") uses profits from his writing to build a working time machine which one of his friends uses to escape the police and continue a killing spree when it is discovered that he's Jack the Ripper. "Goosebumps" deserves a place among these other great films.
This film's story may not be completely original, but it feels fresh and it is fantastically well executed. All of the actors are perfectly cast (even Jack Black, who, in our opinion, seems to have had more misses than hits in his career). With the help of a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, a script by Darren Lemke and the direction of Rob Letterman, this cast and this story hit the perfect balance between frightening and fun – just like the "Goosebumps" books themselves. The script is very funny and the dialog and character interactions are charming from the very beginning to the very end of the movie. The interesting characters, the story's danger and adventure, along with the excitement and humor all seamlessly contribute to a simply wonderful family film that will appeal to kids of all ages, even if they don't know their goose bumps from their speed bumps or their Kings from their Stines. "A+"