“Goosebumps”


It's a tricky balance, making a “scary” movie that will engage the kids, but not make it so frightening that it's too intense for their age group. “Goosebumps” does a pretty good job of striking that balance, mainly because it's based on an enormously successful book series by R.L. Stine.
Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his Mom have just moved to the small community of Greendale, Maryland. He's not looking forward to going to a high school where he doesn't know anybody, but suddenly things get better when he meets the good-looking girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush). She's nice enough, but she lives with her mean old Uncle, R.L. Stine (Jack Black), who absolutely forbids Zach to have anything to do with her daughter, or ever cross the fence into their property.
But Hannah is an irrespresible soul who takes Zach on an exploration of an abandoned carnival property, where they climb on to the ferris wheel and have a teenage bonding experience. Other than Hannah, Zach has made all of one friend, Champ (Ryan Lee), the school nerd whom everybody calls “Chump.” Champ is visiting Zach when they hear Hannah's screams, and they disobey the mean old Uncle's prohibition and come inside the house, anyway, where Zach accidentally opens a book.
That wouldn't be such a big deal, except all the books were under lock and key for a reason: opening them unleashes the monsters within them. Literally. So the letters on the page morph into The Abominable Snowman, who's so tall that the first thing he does is burn his finger on a light bulb. (Well, we have to have some whimsical kid humor.) Then he starts chasing everyone.
It turns out that mean old Uncle Stine is the author of all those books, and the reason he was so protective of them is that he knew that this could happen, and he didn't want to endanger anyone. But it's too late for that. The chain reaction opens all the books, so we have a giant preying mantis, evil gnomes, a werewolf in blue jean shorts (well, we wouldn't want to be immodest) chasing chicken pieces in a grocery store.
The action careens toward a high school dance, where all the kids get routed by various scary critters on the loose, and it takes the bravery of Hannah, Zach, and yes, Champ, to get them back inside their books (hold the book close enough to them and they're sucked back in). And safely locked away.
Yes, there's a plot surprise, which helps maintain the adult interest, and there's even a cameo by the “real” R.L. Stine, who's a teacher in the high school named...Mr. Black. Champ gets to impress his dream girl (Halston Sage), Mr. Stine even gets a job teaching at the school. So everybody's living happily ever after, right? Oh, except one of the unleashed monsters, The Invisible Boy, is still lurking about the school because he's, well, invisble. Which sets us up perfectly for the sequel.
Jack Black is not in a funny role here, but he carries just enough ironic self-awareness to add some character depth. It's not a horror genre classic, but it's that rare scary kids movie that isn't too intense for those youngsters who might enjoy just a little thrill.

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman, Texas