Director Eli Roth’s newest film is an example of a genre that is a decade past its prime. Like its fellow children’s adventure novel adaptations The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and Bridge to Terabithia, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a film that will easily win over children, but requires patience from adults who have seen films like this several times over: the children’s adaptation that worked so beautifully on the page, but falls a bit flat on screen.
Recently-orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) goes to live with his warlock uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the eponymous house, which once belonged to an evil warlock (Kyle MacLachlan) who concealed a clock within the walls that is counting down to the end of the world. Lewis, Jonathan, and witch neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) must find the clock and stop it before the universe unravels.
Lewis is the weird kid at his new school, comfortable with his ever-present goggles and dictionaries, yet also desperate to be liked…when the script remembers this character trait. Vaccaro is earnest, but the screenplay’s eventual pitfalls lead to Vaccaro’s as well. On the other hand, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are the best part of the film. Jack Black plays a stereotypical fun-loving uncle, similar to his role in Nacho Libre, and imbues Jonathan with genuine caring that makes his relationship with his nephew convincing. His status as an outcast—in 1955 Michigan, he wears an embroidered kimono to the train station—creates a heartwarming theme of found family that carries through for all the characters, though it eventually feels a bit forced. For once, Cate Blanchett wasn’t immediately recognizable as herself in this role. She plays Florence as stern yet friendly, searching for meaning in her life after an unknown tragedy blocked her magic. Blanchett has a poignant role that, in a different film, would have been further explored. Florence’s open acknowledgment that she and Jonathan are solely platonic friends and not “kissy-faced” is a refreshing statement to hear from adults in a children’s film. Men and women can be friends without that pesky sexual tension getting in the way. The film doesn’t linger on this point, but wisely chooses to let it stand as is. Jonathan and Florence’s friendly banter is charming, and serves as light comedy in otherwise tense scenes.
Roth, mostly known for gore and horror ventures such as 2005’s Hostel, fairly successfully tries his hand at a family-friendly film. The House…, based on the 1973 novel by John Bellairs, manages to entertain, despite also falling victim to the curse of movie mediocrity. The film veers between sentiment and action, with little in between. Oh, wait, actually, there’s plenty of room in there for poop jokes. Those never get old, especially since the film is aiming for cheaply-won laughter. The sentimental side of the film does occasionally feel cheesy. For example, there’s a scene where Jonathan is revived after passing out that mimics sitcom humor. The action scenes are loud, garish, and long. Eventually, you start wishing the CGI pumpkins would win the day, if only so the movie would progress.
MacLachlan does the best he can with villainous Isaac Izzard, whose character and evil plan are conventional for children’s adventure adaptations. His acting is sufficiently creepy for the role, and it’s a shame he isn’t in the film more. Also, hearty applause to the makeup department for Izzard’s undead appearance: he’s overly pale, with cracking skin, and the blood vessels in his eyes have ruptured.
As the film progresses, the horror elements come into play, and unfortunately the acting suffers under the farcical demands of the screenplay. Roth limits these elements to minor jump scares, creepy puppets and robots, and fights with exploding pumpkins, which fits the kid-friendly audience. However, the characters treat this all so seriously that it starts to be funny, even edging on the ridiculous. Lewis repeatedly screams for Jonathan during a battle with attacking books, and there’s a disconnect between the terror he’s feeling and what is actually happening. The horror doesn’t feel real.
The screenplay and cinematography, however, draw you in immediately, especially the opening narration from Jonathan, in which he takes charge of Lewis via letter, kickstarting the plot in the process as he sends his nephew a bus ticket and two silver dollars. The camera pans over the items, placing the chocolate chip cookies in the corner of the frame just as Jonathan apologizes for the chocolate smear on the letter. It’s a funny moment in a sad opening. The film continues in this vein, as the central mystery of finding the clock balances out with humorous, mundane moments as Lewis learns how to be a warlock from Jonathan and tries to make friends at school.
The House with a Clock in its Walls, though a bit late in terms of its genre’s popularity, works well enough with what is is given. Owen Vaccaro shows promise, though Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are the ones truly holding doomsday back.