“Goosebumps” is just right for little monsters who love stories
I know a six year old who has no patience for the talking parts of movies. He cannot abide the character interpretations of actors, has no appreciation for scenery chewing, and does not have an interest in the finer points of plot development or thematic discussion.
To him, the point of a film is to rush at manic pace from one action scene to another. Characters are to be present in archetypes only: heroes, villains, damsels. Their goofy comic relief friends must stay in their haphazardly constructed roles and follow the standard storytelling conventions. It’s no wonder that this six year old has a preference for the “Star Wars” prequels rather than the slower, more talkative originals. He is simply too busy to be caught up in nuance.
This is, of course, exactly as it should be. And some movies are made explicitly for this audience, and they should be as well. Humans develop in stages and thinking in an evolutionary process that reveals greater truths through exposure and practice. No one is born loving the works of Werner Herzog and Ingmar Bergman.
And so, a film like “Goosebumps” is an important step for a six year old. Not only does its furious pace fit the fleeting attention span of its intended audience, but in-between the frantic action scenes, it drops small bits of knowledge about the form of storytelling. It is a children’s film for children, based on a popular children’s series, which is becoming ever rarer. Too often, films of this type awkwardly insert humor that is over the heads of the intended audience in an effort to appeal to the accompanying adults.
“Goosebumps” never stoops to this level. Were it not for Jack Black, the film would be right at home as a basic cable made-for-TV movie, like many other “Goosebumps” stories. As a major release, the film is perfectly adequate entertainment for young children, with very few scares and very little distinction. It is a Halloween film made for those of Halloween age.
Zach (Dylan Minnette), the eponymous hero of the tale, has recently moved to a small town in Delaware to start a new life after the passing of his father. His mother (the always appreciated Amy Ryan) has been hired as an assistant principal for the local high school where Zach will be spending the remainder of his high school days.
He appears to be a genial, friendly kid, who, despite his preternatural good looks, is destined to be the outcast wherever he goes. But as he settles into his new home, he meets his new neighbors: a young girl named Hannah, who is conveniently his age, and her overbearing, over-protective father who has a flair for the dramatic. He is told in no uncertain terms that he will not be allowed to associate with Hannah, which leads exactly where one might expect.
After a misunderstanding involving the police, Zach becomes concerned for her safety. He invites a new friend from school along on his breaking-and-entering escapade to discover the true nature of his neighbor. Famed author R.L. Stine lives next door and his monsters are inexplicably real, locked away in bound books in the library.
There is no further explanation in the film of the magic of R.L. Stine and his stories. Children are accepting of the unexplained, so long as the story continues to move towards the end. Once the books are opened and the monsters are loose, there is no more time for hemming and hawing at the believability of the story—this is “Goosebumps,” after all, not Dostoevsky.
There are werewolves to outrun, possessed ventriloquist dummies to outsmart, and giant praying mantises at which to marvel. The majority of this is mediocre CGI, but the audience is unlikely to notice the quality when the quantity is so large. In this one instance, I might even recommend the 3D version of the film, as the visuals are unlikely to suffer in the conversion.
Young adult literature like “Goosebumps” is a hot commodity right now. There is nothing wrong with providing children books they might enjoy. The trick comes in moving them forward. In both literature and film, it is important to always be moving forward. It doesn’t pay to get trapped in the basement of middling fantasies.