Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: Goosebumps "Return of the Mummy"

I bet Gabe can't wait to go back to school and tell all his friends about this little adventure. You know, swap stories about ancient Egyptian religious rituals. That’s what kids talk about at the lunch tables, right?

"Did you summon Nepthys? It only counts if you summoned Nepthys."
Plot
Things get lost when you adapt books to TV or film. Extraneous details that provide a world-building experience are usually the first things to go, since TV shows and films can fill in the world's details using "show, don't tell."

Goosebumps is no different. The stories are streamlined, details are lost, sometimes entire characters don't even make the cut, like Dr. Fielding from the book version of this story.

But unlike most of the other episodes, I'd say that this story was actually damaged by the adaptation process. Don't get me wrong, some of the changes are for the better, like shortening the sequence with repeating the magic words. That would have eaten up screen time otherwise. And we don't really need to see Gabe get off the plane and meet up with his family.

But the episode loses something by removing Dr. Fielding. Sure, his character isn't really necessary, but his professional disagreements with Uncle Ben do more to set up the risks of opening the tomb than just having a local guy freak out about a curse. It'd be far less stereotypical, too.

And in the book, Uncle Ben actually figured out that something was up with Nila when she knew a bit too much about the lore surrounding Khor-Ru's tomb, which made his character a bit more worthwhile.

Speaking of worthwhile, Gabe actually defeated Nila in the book by getting involved in the scuffle between her and Khor-Ru and accidentally breaking her necklace. Which is loads better than just watching from the corner, as he does in the episode.

I really wish there were more meat to this episode, but most of the mummy's backstory is infodumped at the end of the episode.

Not that that's always a bad thing. "Mummy on the Orient Express" was great.
Most of the episode is just... talking about legends and stuff. Which is fine to set the mood, but can't really carry a story. Even the Goosebumps book about a legend ("Legend of the Lost Legend") had less exposition about legends.

Themes
This is R.L. Stine's tribute to classic mummy horror stories. It's got everything. Scarabs, curses, magical artifacts, the works.

Everything but gunplay, sadly.
Unfortunately, there's very little to make this episode anything but a stereotypical mummy story. Sure, R.L. Stine's abundant creativity can often overwhelm a coherent story, but I think a bit of that creativity would do wonders for this one.

Characters
Gabe Sabry (Daniel DeSanto)
As far as bland, nondescript Goosebumps protagonists go, he's not the blandest.

DeSanto works with what he has, but there's just not much for the character to do. He's pretty much a spectator in his own story.

Dr. Uncle Ben Hassad (Elias Zarou)
He seems like a neat guy. I guess.

Goosebumps doesn't ever really do much in the way of parents or legal guardians, since their primary function is to be oblivious to whatever supernaturalness is going on.

Uncle Ben has more of a hand in progressing the story, since it's his dig site and all, but that doesn't mean he gets extra characterization. Despite his importance to getting the story started, at the end of the day, he's just another adult who doesn't know what's really going on. Which, as I mentioned earlier, is actually a step down from the character from the book.

Sari Hassad (Annick Obonsawin)
I like Sari. Out of all the characters in the story, she has the most personality. She likes to tease her cousin, but doesn't do it to be mean. She's a bit of a troublemaker, too, saying magic words and defiling tombs.

I think the look on her face as her dad explains the lore behind Prince Khor-Ru pretty much cemented her as the best character in this episode.

Princess Nila a.k.a. Nila Rahmad (Afrah Gouda)
The hardest part of being a reviewer is having to be a critic.

I mean, I've ripped into the Marvel Animation Universe in general, and Man of Action in particular, but I'm sure that they're all wonderful people with a genuine passion for what they're doing... even if I absolutely hate some of the stuff they've done. Heck, sometimes the people who work on the things I talk about actually respond to me, which is always a bit of a shock.

Having tried my hand at both acting and directing in college, I understand that a bad performance isn't always the actor's fault. Maybe the script sucks. Maybe the direction was bad. Maybe the only usable take was the worst take.

So, with that in mind... Afrah Gouda gives the worst performance I've seen in anything in recent memory.

"So you're saying she isn't very... Gouda?"
Carlos!

...But yes.

I feel so bad saying this because from everything I've seen, she seems to be a nice enough person. But her performance is flat as a pancake when she's pretending to be a reporter. That wouldn't be so bad, because she at least injects some warmth into the role.

But when she reveals herself to be an ancient Egyptian princess, the warmth is gone, replaced with an artificial coldness that I don't buy for one second. She talks to her brother with the same flat energy she uses to say "Silence, foolish peasant," making her performance flat and monotone.

The lines she has to deal with aren't great, since they're mostly exposition, but they could be vastly improved with a little variation in tone. Maybe some glee at being alive again? Anger at Gabe for interrupting her? A genuinely heartfelt reunion with her brother, making his defeat of her slightly tragic?

And, of course, the elephant in the room. The accent.

There's barely any information about Miss (Mrs.?) Gouda on the internet, and the only other thing she's credited for is a single episode of Air Emergency, which, after a bit of searching, I actually managed to track down on DVD through my local library's online catalog system... on the sketchiest-looking DVD possible.

When I went to return it, the librarian didn't informed me that it couldn't be sent back to the library it came from.
Because the library that sent it burned down ten years ago.
Okay, none of that's true, but would you actually be surprised if it were?
She had no lines. At least, none that I could hear, since she was reenacting a plane hijacking that was being narrated over.

So this is merely speculation, but it's very possible that she's using her real accent. If that's the case, it's also possible that English isn't her first language..

But there's really no way to verify anything, since the Goosebumps TV series is very hard to find information on. The DVD releases have no special features, and most Google searches will only turn up information on the movie or the books, which is why you won't be seeing me addressing much in the way of behind-the-scenes trivia for this show.

"Did you try Twitter?"
Yes. All I found was a party catering service Twitter that hadn’t been updated in years. And it wasn’t in English. So really, unless she just so happens to leave a comment or something... I got nothing.

Monster of the Week: Prince Khor-Ru (Peter Jarvis)
He's a mummy.

...What more can I say? He's an undead Egyptian prince who wants nothing more to rest. Having Nila be the real villain of the story is an alright twist, but all the buildup seems kind of wasted when all the mummy does is shuffle around.

Sure, Peter Jarvis gives us some very solid mummy shuffling, but the episode is about 90% buildup to a mummy who walks out and demands to be left alone.

Visuals
I made fun of the limited sets, but the sets are really good for a TV budget. Credit where it's due. Gabe's summoner and Prince Khor-Ru look pretty good, as well.

In fact, there's really only one problem with this episode's visuals.

This is a scarab.
This is a cockroach.
They look nothing alike.

And you know what the worst part is?

They show us an actual scarab to compare Nila’s hissing cockroach form to.

Granted, I don't know how they would fake a scarab crawling around, since this episode doesn't have enough of a budget to make a CGI one, but...yeah. This is like filming an episode with a werewolf... and using a golden retriever.

But I'd imagine that most of the budget was spent on the pyramid set. And even then, it's clear that the pyramid's interior mostly consists of the same few sets, simply redecorated and shot from different angles. So I’d imagine that the set ate up a good chunk of the budget.

Barking Dogs: 0

Child Grabbing: 2
To be fair, what else is a disembodied hand going to do? Sari was just being mean, though.

Foliage POV Cam: No
What foliage?

Red Paint: No

X-Files Shout out: No

Final Thoughts
Meh. It tries its best to be atmospheric, but falls short on delivering anything beyond some nice sets. And Nila's infodump and the long stretches of wandering through a pyramid turn that atmosphere into a monotonous slog.

Next time, another sequel that was adapted in favor of the original story. But this time, they actually left the telltale "II" in the episode title. See you then!

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