It may star a grungy slob instead of an Austrian bodybuilder, but at its heart School of Rock is basically the Kindergarten Cop of the new millennium. I mean that as a compliment. Scoff all you like, but Ivan Reitman's 1990 film was a great mainstream comedy filled with memorable lines ("It's not a tumor!") and an excellent comic turn by current gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the movie did get bogged down in a dull action subplot during the final half-hour, the scenes between Ah-nuld and his young charges were priceless. In fact, it's safe to say that had Kindergarten Cop not worked, we would never have seen the Terminator spout such bon mots as "Hasta la vista, baby" and "Talk to the hand." (Then again, we might also have been spared Junior and Jingle All the Way.) Jack Black enjoys a similar career boost in School of Rock. Since his breakout performance in High Fidelity three years back, the Gen-X answer to John Belushi has floundered in a series of underwhelming supporting roles in dumb comedies like Saving Silverman and Orange County. Black's frequent appearances on various MTV awards shows also haven't done anything to improve his comic skills; in such settings, he comes across like an overgrown frat boy with no off switch. In order for his brand of anything-goes humor to be successful, he needs a few good straight men to play off. John Cusack and Todd Louiso filled those roles in High Fidelity, and here Black trots out his shtick in front of an entire classroom of ten-year-olds. While this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it's actually a masterstroke. Just as the well-cast kids in Kindergarten Cop brought out the best in Schwarzenegger, Rock's terrific ensemble of child actors forces the star to raise his game. Black's fans don't have to worry about their hero going soft (he still leaps around the set like a madman and yells, rather than speaks, most of his dialogue), but there's a focus to his antics that renders him watchable--and even hilarious--to those viewers who normally would find him as appealing as Pauly Shore. As Dewey Finn, a would-be rocker turned substitute teacher, the actor has found his Atticus Finch role--the part that will define him for the rest of his career. Black hopefully has a number of good movies in his future, but it's unlikely he'll ever find a character (or a film) as suited to his talents as this one.

Directed by Richard Linklater and scripted by Mike White, School of Rock is that increasingly rare breed of movie, a studio comedy that's actually funny. There's nothing edgy or unconventional about the fish-out-of-water plot, which may disappoint audiences expecting something more daring from the minds behind Dazed and Confused and Chuck & Buck. But just as such Golden Age filmmakers as John Huston and Howard Hawks are praised for moving between genres with ease, so too do Linklater and White deserve credit for trying--and succeeding at--something new. Besides, producing a good mainstream comedy within the studio system is harder than it seems. (Just take a look at Bringing Down the House and Bruce Almighty…or better yet, don't.) Most of these movies are made by committee, which explains why they feel so flat and formulaic. Of course, School of Rock follows a very specific formula; the reason it works is that Linklater and White hit each of the requisite plot points with style and--more importantly--without irony. You know Dewey will teach his kids to rock, they'll teach him to be a better person, and in the end all of them will deliver a kick-ass performance at the Battle of the Bands. The pleasure comes in seeing this conventional tale told with such craft and humor.

If the ecstatic reaction of the audience at the preview screening is any indication, Paramount has a massive hit on their hands with School of Rock. That's excellent news for Linklater, White and Black, each of whom would greatly benefit from a big commercial success. But the real winners here are moviegoers, who can now enjoy a genuine crowd-pleaser before the heavy-duty Oscar season kicks in.

--Ethan Alter