LFF 2015: Goosebumps **


Jack Black, monsters and imagination – what could possibly go wrong? Well, the latter, actually, which is quite concerning for a film about bringing stories to life. Perhaps the old nostalgia is kicking in, a longing for a half-decent return to the days of Jumanji (1995) – ‘re-imagining’ on the cards for next year – or The Never Ending Story (1984). There were such high hopes for Goosebumps, a nod to such 80s/90s film pop culture.

Based on R.L. Stine’s successful book series, it sees two teenagers team up with young adult horror writer R.L. Stine (Black) and his daughter, after the author’s imaginary demons are set lose to wreck havoc on the town of Madison, Delaware.

The problem isn’t the imaginative aspect of the villainous characters – there are plenty of them to be thrilled by for all ages. It’s the lack of any actual story using them all constructively. Once the Abominable Snowman is set lose, the whole film is a stop-and-start chase – people running, coming-of-age moment, people running, another coming-of-age moment etc. Nothing actually happens with said baddies to develop their presence, apart from with creepy ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black) – every adult’s worst nightmare come true, let alone a kid’s.

The filmmakers – director Rob Letterman and writers Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – have caught the essence of Stine’s Goosebump books, bringing the characters to life, but left them ‘hanging’ in our world with not much to do. This film feels much like a dress rehearsal for the real thing to come – Part II of which is nicely set up at the end of this film.

Also, there’s this annoying filmmaker mentality nowadays that seems to perpetuate the notion that kids don’t have very long attention spans, so let’s make everything snappy so we don’t have to develop any storylines properly. After all, kids will love the fast pace of Goosebumps. To an extent, this is true, but it smacks of sloppy filmmaking, choosing big effect over substance.

Even Black is a tad overcooked in this, overplaying his usual eccentric self as Stine. He does deliver some brief comedy moments though, such as the Stephen King digs at Stine’s expense. The rest of the youthful cast of Dylan Minnette (Zach, the boy crush), Odeya Rush (Hannah, Stine’s naturally pretty daughter) and Ryan Lee (Champ, the usual cool nerd) are fairly vanilla, considering the lads have precedent, having starred in R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour TV series (2011-2013). That said they are sure to get some fans, if only because some kids would love to swap places with them in tackling the monsters.

Goosebumps does give you the pips with some chilling moments as all your childhood fears emerge. It also gives you the willies at how zany the pace is and how much it squanders a perfectly brilliant imaginative set-up. Let’s hope Part II gets a plot and a better outing for its characters and Black’s huge talent.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Gulliver’s Travels – 3*

Jack Black is an acquired taste. Let’s face it; if you’re not a fan, you wouldn’t even contemplate going to see a film, which is effectively another stage for self-depreciating Blackmania. The only issue is whether as a fan of the tale of Gulliver’s Travels, the version from director Rob Letterman – the man behind Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale – will entertain or irk you. If you are loyal to the quintessentially English literary text, you may find the contemporary American (New York) spin a bit too brash, as Gulliver becomes a bungling mailroom employee with aspiring ideas of being a travel writer to impress the girl (travel sub-editor Darcy (Amanda Peet)), and is sent off to the Bermuda Triangle on his first assignment.

Low and behold, hapless Gulliver hits a waterspout in a vicious storm, and gets spat out on the shores of Lilliput, full of little people who think he’s a beast – well, he is a man giant to them. The rest is set for a fest of Black comic over-indulgence, Black flabby flesh over-exposure, Black eyebrow gymnastics, and Black taunts at the stuffiness of old English etiquette. The latter is what gets a little irksome at times, especially with when Gulliver revamps Lilliput in New York style with garish billboards and American casuals. Admittedly, the part where he goes all ‘School of Rock’ (Guitar Hero moves) is as amusing as an impatient kid trying to impress a parent. The re-enacting of cinematic classics, like Star Wars and Titanic for the Lilliput royal family as a theatrical re-enactment of the great Gulliver’s life back home get most of the satirical laughs.

What makes these moments are the impressive supporting cast of Brits in deadpan humour mode, including Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, James Corden, and Catherine Tate – although, sadly, we get to see very little input from the latter lady. O’Dowd appears to match the Black idiocy for the British contingent as pompous General Edward, and Blunt complements as bored, but smart and very beautiful Princess Mary he’s betrothed to. But it’s fellow countryman Jason Segel as the love-struck Horatio yearning for Mary’s affection and as Black’s diminutive sidekick who often steals the scenes from Black, especially he wooing of Mary with a contemporary love song classic.

There is also one inspired moment in the film, where Gulliver wakes up in a dolls house and gets terrorised by a youngster that’s almost Lynchian in respect, but the rest of the film is pantomime fluff that still touches on the original tale’s themes of man’s treatment of man, petty differences between sides/religions and political corruption, but all done in a far lighter manner. Unfortunately, the film concept swings from Wild Wild West to Transformers – perhaps a precaution to keep the youngsters happy with a bit of robot wars? Prepare, also, as always, for the big morals at the end, delivered by Black who always comes to his adult senses for a mere split second, after a burst of childish lunacy.

Black does what he does best in Gulliver’s Travels; he’s a man-child at heart, employed to dumb down any tale for the kids. There is an uglier side in the shameless advertising throughout, targeting the adults who have nowhere to hide from their offspring in the cinema shadows, especially the Lilliput soldiers’ infatuation with Gulliver’s iPhone. Still, a jolly funny song and dance later reiterates that neither star nor cast have taken this seriously, and as a bit of family escapism on Boxing Day, it’s adequately entertaining, and far better than your local stage panto.

3/5 stars

By L G-K