‘Just Beyond’ mixes messages with R.L. Stine’s tales of terror

Rick's Reviews

Mckenna Grace plays Veronica in the “Leave Them Kids Alone” episode of “Just Beyond.” (Photo courtesy of Disney)

R.L. Stine has had one primary mission with the mountain of stories he has written during the past 35 years aimed at young readers. His only objective is for them to have fun.

That has changed slightly with the adaptation of his works for the new Disney+ series, “Just Beyond,” scheduled to launch Oct. 13 on the streaming service. The change is the work of Seth Grahame-Smith – author of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – who took on the task of slipping in a few morals and messages in his adaptations of Stine’s works to scripts.

The young cast starring in the initial batch of eight episodes in the anthology definitely saw some deep meanings in their scripts. Episodes acknowledge teenage struggles such as bullying, peer pressure and anxiety.

These looks are through the kind of supernatural storylines that Stine uses. The anthology series tells astonishing and thought-provoking stories of a reality just beyond the one we know. Each episode introduces viewers to a new cast of characters who must go on a surprising journey of self-discovery in a supernatural world of witches, aliens, ghosts and parallel universes.

Lexi Underwood – who plays 14-year old Ella in “We’ve Got Spirit, Yes We Do” – points out that those familiar with Stine’s work will expect some form of monster in each episode of the anthology. Her character faces that during a class field trip to a theater where an acting troupe was killed.

“This whole show is not only about the physical monsters that our characters face but also the monsters within them,” Lexi says. “For Ella, the monster that she is battling is change. How to go about it.

“Being stuck in the past and not fully knowing how to be in the present moment. That is something I know I have struggled with. The loss of a friend is something everyone experiences so the biggest message behind Ella’s story is how to go about the healing process.”

Megan Stott, who plays Olivia in the “My Monster” episode, explains her story has plenty of typical Stine elements from squeaky floorboards to a hulking humanoid. But, there’s more than just the tale of a young girl dealing with her parents’ recent divorce.

“My episode is a lot about mental health. I was quite surprised to see some of these very serious moments like trying to cope with the pressure of having your parents divorced, moving to a new state and making new friends,” Megan says. “It was all so much for her.

“She was trying to keep it in and not really talk about it and I think it’s all about communication, Otherwise it is quite difficult to move forward with your life.”

Jy Prishkulnik is certain viewers will see how her episode, “Which Witch,” is a way to look at how important it is to be yourself. She plays Fiona, the only witch at her high school, who suppresses her powers just to fit in. That changes when her cousin, Luna (Rachel Marsh) arrives with pride and confidence in being a witch.

Gabriel Bateman describes his episode, “Parents Are From Mars, Kids Are From Venus,” as being one of the less intense offerings in the anthology. Jack (Bateman) and Ronald (Arjun Athalye) are a couple of teenagers who are convinced their parents are getting weirder every day.

Their embarrassment turns to shock when boys stumble into the adults’ game night and discover their parents dressed in ornate robes, chanting and levitating objects

“My episode is not as serious. It is about puberty and going through changes,” Bateman says. “It’s about feeling different from your parents and feeling like they are awkward and weird.

“But, that is certainly something that most people go through. I went through it.”

Parents are a big part of the stories, especially the episode “The Treehouse.” Sam (Cedric Joe) has been saving his money to buy his late father’s favorite comic in mint condition. After a neighborhood bully snatches it and tosses it in a puddle, Sam retreats to the treehouse he and his father built that leads him to an alternate universe where strange yet familiar encounters ultimately lead him to a painful choice.

Cedric – who played Dom James in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” – had to deal with grief and pain playing Sam. The big issue he sees in the episode is that it is very hard to let go of something or someone you love deeply.

Stine is generally OK with some serious messages being added to his work. But he still looks at it as serving up “broccoli” instead of “just dessert” with his tales to terrorize. 

“I always want to show kids that they can just be entertained by books. That’s it,” Stine says.

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