Film critics, on average, know less about children and their pop culture taste than just about any social group on the planet. So the next sentence of this review should be taken with several coarse grains of sodium chloride.

Goosebumps is a great first horror movie for kids.

(Maybe. Again, film critics tend to disagree with children on just about all of their entertainment choices that don’t involve the word “Pixar.”)

It’s also one of the most ingenious literary adaptations in recent Hollywood history. The task handed to writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, and Darren Lemke was a formidable one: turning not just one book but a massive anthology series of children’s horror novels into a single film. Rather than focus on one popular Goosebumps creature (like the wicked ventriloquist dummy Slappy), they designed a premise that allowed them to incorporate tons of them — a world where the Goosebumps books exist and their author R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black) writes them on a magic typewriter. Anything he types comes to life, so he carefully locks up his novels’ manuscripts and hides them in his office. But when a bunch of kids find the books and accidentally unlock them, all hell breaks loose along with many of Stine’s most famous creations.

The break-in’s culprits are a trio of young teenagers designed to appeal to a wide swath of the film’s target audience. There’s Zach (Dylan Minnette) a lonely boy who’s just moved next door to Stine with his single mom (Amy Ryan). Zach strikes up a friendship with Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), despite her dad’s repeated objections. And then there’s Champ (Ryan Lee), the dorky comic relief. They stumble into Stine’s study, and before they realize what they’ve done, their town is deep in the throes of a full-on monster invasion.

From this old man’s perspective, Alexander, Karaszewski, Lemke, and director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens, Black’s Gulliver’s Travels) calibrated Goosebumps’ horror perfectly for Stine’s grade-school-age readers. There’s a fair number of mild jump scares, but a steady stream of slapstick humor keeps things from getting too intense. It works as a primer not just for Stine’s novels, but for the entire horror genre in general; almost every conceivable kind of movie monster gets at least a walk-on cameo somewhere in the escalating chaos. Braver kids will surely be inspired to set off and discover more adult movies starring their favorites.

Without question, Goosebumps’ three young heroes are well-worn stereotypes of family-friendly movies; the shy but good-hearted loner, the sweet girl who brings him out of his shell, the lovable goofball who keeps getting everyone into trouble. To their credit, though, the cast enliven their roles with spunk and surprisingly funny humor. Minnette and Rush radiate likability, and Lee, playing a part that could easily sink the entire film, steals scene after scene.

The trump card in the mix is Black; anytime the kids start to get annoying, Black’s hilariously cranky Stine pops up to yell at them. (Kudos not only to Black for finding so many ways to make an unfunny guy funny, but also to the real R.L. Stine, for having enough of a sense of humor to sign off on a version of himself that’s basically an antisocial jerk.)

It can’t be easy to make a movie like Goosebumps. Based on the vast majority of children’s movies screened for critics, it seems like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers believe the way to make something for kids is to treat their audience like morons. Then there are others in the film industry who worry that if you make something too kid-friendly that older teenagers won’t come, so they lard juvenile material with inappropriate language and violence. Goosebumps is the rare kids film doesn’t talk down to kids, or try to lure them into the theater with overly adult content. It talks directly to them, at their level.


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