Few headlines are more often groan-inducing in entertainment than the news that a successful book or book series has been optioned for a big screen adaptation. From The Twilight Saga to The Chronicles Of Narnia, cinematic history is littered with the exploited corpses of popular novels that everyone thought could and should be brought to life in a more visual way. Some of these adaptations have made major bank despite pans from critics and fans, but others (Mortal Instruments) have failed right of out the gate. Goosebumps, which attempts to bring all of R.L. Stine’s beloved literary monsters to life in a single film, does what few of these adaptations have ever accomplished by actually delivering an altogether fun and thrilling ride without twisting its source material beyond recognition.
Choosing to avoid adapting any single story from the Goosebumps series, the cinematic debut of R.L. Stine’s fictional universe actually takes place within a universe just like our own. Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) is a young man who is upset over moving to a small town from the big city when he discovers a cute and mysterious neighbor girl, Hannah (Odeya Rush), and her equally mysterious father (Jack Black). Hannah is home schooled, and though she shows an immediate interest in Zach her father has very strict rules about her interaction with the outside world. She disobeys, as all teens do, and it doesn’t take long for young love to blossom. When Zach believes Hannah is in trouble, he breaks into her house with his best friend, Champ (Ryan Lee), and the two stumble upon a library filled with locked manuscripts for every book in the Goosebumps series. Curiosity gets the best of them, and before Hannah can intervene the two inadvertently unleash the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena on their unsuspecting world.
There is a sense of childlike wonder to everything in Goosebumps, and even though it’s based on a series of so-called “horror novels for teens,” its entertainment is very much built for an all-ages audience. Once the friends realize Hannah’s father is actually R.L. Stine, they set to returning the Abominable Snowman to his book. They succeed with a little help from Hannah’s very annoyed father, but before they can return home the creatures from the other books in R.L. Stine’s wildly popular series begin to break free. The reason for this is a mischievous ventriloquist doll named Slappy (don’t call him a dummy), and it’s he who serves as the film’s central villain from this point forward.
To call Goosebumps an ambitious undertaking would be well within reason. The logical adaptation path for this series would be to bring all the books to life, one at a time, but writers Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski found a far more inventive way to present Stine’s universe of terror that is endlessly fun from beginning to end. Black, delivering his best performance since School Of Rock, leads the young friends through car chases involving a giant praying mantis, a grocery store with a resident werewolf, a graveyard filled with ghouls and beyond. The gang runs through set piece after set piece built to breathe life into the characters that fans of Stine’s work have loved for decades, and they story is constructed in such a way none of it ever begins to feel too contrived. The chaos is real, albeit controlled by a rigid three-act structure, and it’s presented in a wonderfully imaginative way that allows for continual reveals right up until the grand finale.
As someone who spent many days and nights of their childhood lost in the worlds R.L. Stine brought to life, I can say without a doubt in my mind that I am, for once, wholly satisfied with a big screen adaptation of something I loved in my youth. Goosebumps delivers all the thrills and chills that have become a signature of Stine’s work, and it does so while honoring his creations in a way that is rarely found in Hollywood today. There is a clear love and understanding of his universe, as well as what it means to readers, littered in every single sequence of this film. It’s a product for fans, by fans, that was created solely with fans in mind. Outsiders will love it too, I’m sure, but that is simply because Goosebumps was good in the first place. This isn’t a new take on anything, but rather a celebration of all things that keep you up at night, and I honestly believe it will quickly become a staple of Halloween. If there could ever be a definitive version of Goosebumps, this is it.