Like all anthologies, Just Beyond has its ups and downs, but for the most part, it’s a meaningful examination of YA themes with one truly stand-out episode.
This review of Just Beyond is spoiler-free.
R.L. Stine is primarily known for Goosebumps, but the prolific American author – who has been dubbed “the Stephen King of children’s literature”, a weird moniker if you know anything about Stephen King – has dreamed up hundreds of sanitized nightmares for younger readers. Netflix’s recent, surprisingly good three-part adaptation of Fear Street was one of his, and Disney+’s latest anthology series Just Beyond is another. Playing like a family-friendly Twilight Zone, these eight paranormal tales are pretty well-suited to the Halloween season, even if there aren’t many scares to be found here. With each episode running for around 30 minutes, most ending on a twist, and virtually all containing a thinly veiled lesson that’ll resonate with the target audience, there’s probably something for everyone here, even if only one episode, the last, truly stands out.
That isn’t to say the others are bad, just less memorable. All share a baseline quality of acting and so-so visual effects, and the half-hour runtime leaves most of them feeling a bit compressed, but there’s plenty of variety. “Leave Them Kids Alone” is set in a strict school for “difficult” girls, where a budding activist finds herself at odds with the principal; “Which Witch?” is a high-school drama with a touch of the supernatural; and so on, and so forth. The moral and social underpinnings are sometimes sledgehammer-subtle, but that’s fine for the target demographic. It’s better for each episode to actually be about something beyond the superficial, and I respect that the show goes out of its way to make sure everyone gets the point it’s making.
Some episodes, such as “Unfiltered”, about a bookish girl corrupted by the promise of beauty, and “Standing Up For Yourself”, a quintessential story about a bully getting his comeuppance, feel too bound by familiar trappings to really surprise. But I liked “Parents Are From Mars, Kids Are From Venus” a lot for its ambiguity and constant turns, while “My Monster” definitely gets the most mileage out of classic horror imagery and tropes. That’s the only episode that might qualify as genuinely scary, at least for the target demo, but it builds to a nice and uplifting conclusion.
It’s the final episode, “The Treehouse”, that is really worth the price of admission though. It’s a powerful, extremely well-acted study of grief and loss, with a fluid comic book logic that builds to a payoff that left a real lump in my throat. Even if all the other episodes were terrible (which they’re not!) it’d be hard not to recommend Just Beyond on the strength of this little story alone.
As things stand, what Disney+ have provided here is a gateway into the world of genre storytelling as a bridge between reality and fiction; stories as a Rosetta Stone for the human experience. It’s flawed and inconsistent, but it’s also sincere and worthwhile if you’re willing to meet it halfway.