NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Goosebumps’ biggest scare: how much it insults the audience


“Goosebumps” currently sits at 73% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. I am mystified. This movie somehow takes the dopey-fun formula of the 1995 Robin Williams comedy “Jumanji” and sucks out all likability. It should have been titled “Dumb, Pretty White People Running Away from Unconvincing CGI Monsters.” Ah, but then Sony couldn’t have benefited from a brand-name tie-in.

The movie’s opening, which must set some sort of record for nonchalant use of cliche, follows Zach Cooper (Dylan Minette) and mom Gale (Amy Ryan) as they … wait for it … move into their new house. Zach is mildly angsty because the fictional town of Madison, Delaware is lame, and because unpacking a box of things from his old house reminds him that his father died.

I say “mildly angsty” because Zach is less a character capable of feeling angst and more a repository for the sort of cool, distant sarcasm used by bad screenwriters in place of actual dialogue. That goes for the rest of the cast, too, including Hannah (Odeya Rush), the gorgeous girl next door, and Champ (Ryan Lee), the dorky kid at Zach’s new school that will inevitably become his comic foil. We know Champ is a dork the first time we see him because he is wearing a shirt that says “This Kid is Cool.” And because his teeth are sort of funny looking. And because his name is Champ.

But I digress. We sit through laborious opening scenes of Hannah placed in apparent mortal peril by her father. They’re laborious because we’ve seen the trailers, which reveal that her father is not some sort of disturbed child-abuser, but in fact “Goosebumps” author R.L. Stine (Jack Black). He has to prevent his secret collection of magical books from being opened, because they contain the monsters he created. Guess what Zach and Champ do in their attempt to rescue Hannah?

The premise, I’ll admit, is not a bad one. “Goosebumps” readers who have grown up can hardly be expected to remember the nitty-gritty details of Stine’s formulaic novels, but you can bet they remember the creatures: Slappy, The Blob That Ate Everyone, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena. Unleashing these creatures on a small town leverages the same visceral satisfaction many viewers felt while watching “Jumanji,” where Robin Williams and friends became passive observers of suburban destruction.

But my mind raced ahead of the movie’s script, which offers few surprises and fewer laughs. Black is on auto-pilot here, delivering a sensationally unfunny and embarrassingly mannered performance as Stine. Why couldn’t the script explore his inspiration for these creatures? Why couldn’t we be offered a compelling explanation for their transition from fiction to reality?

No, the movie chooses to answer a different question instead: How much can we insult the intelligence of kids in the audience? In the name of “wholesome family entertainment,” the movie labors over tired, dated jokes: sexist ones, mostly originated by Jillian Bell as Zach’s aunt. She gives him a Bedazzled New York Yankees hat as a moving-in present, and you can almost hear the wah-wah music: “But auntie, this is a girl’s hat!” And when Champ makes the absurd mistake of asking Zach to attend a dance with him? Wah-wah-waaah: “Two boys, dance together?!”

The humor of Bell’s character is supposed to come from the fact that she’s incompetent at finding a man to date, ho ho. But don’t worry: every single character, including her, comes to be matched with a corresponding white mate at the end. Except Zach’s mom, but to be fair, they did write in a nice gym coach for her — it’s just that, like her dead husband, he’s forgotten by writers who couldn’t care less about Stine, his books or the kids who read them.

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