Eli Roth, specialist in horrifically gory and violent films, with films such as Hostel and Green Inferno in his CV, has decided to make the jump to directing more family-friendly fare with his new film, The House with a Clock in its Walls.
Adapted from John Bellairs’ novel of the same name, it tells the story of young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who moves into his uncle Jonathan’s (Jack Black) unusual mansion. Lewis is introduced to a world of magic by his warlock uncle, and, with the help of Jonathan’s neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) must find a clock hidden somewhere in the house and stop something horrible from happening.
Entering Jonathan’s house for the first time, there is immediately a sense that something mystical is going on, shrouded in mystery. This part of the movie, where Lewis begins to experience odd noises at night, his uncle acting strangely, and cryptic messages in his dreams, is easily the best part of the movie. There’s genuine intrigue involved, and enough well-crafted moments of tension that won’t spook out kids too much.
But then when the magic starts being introduced, you’d expect it to be, well, magical. But every magical tidbit in the house, things like a chair that acts like a dog, a topiary lion, a giant snake the production didn’t seem to have the CGI budget for, aren’t explored beyond “hey that’s cool/funny/weird.” That lion? It poops a lot. That’s its whole thing. And aside from one outdoor scene, we don’t get any shots of Lewis reacting in amazement to all the magic in the house. If our young protagonist isn’t impressed with any of it, why should you or your kids?
And then there’s the third act. Look, I know that kids’ movies have silly humor. That’s just par for the course, and it entertains kids. But when a movie’s third act involves a race against time to quite literally save the world, the stakes evaporate very quickly when it has time for Jack Black doing pratfalls. Most of it consists of our trio getting past some bewitched obstacles to get to the villain and stop them, and while I imagine kids could find this exciting and fun, it’s not exactly a thrilling ride.
The movie’s saving grace, though, is in its two adult leads. Jack Black is Jack Black, he’s funny as he always is, and has great chemistry with Vaccaro, but Blanchett’s the real show stopper. Seemingly allowed to have some fun in her performance, she mixes quirkiness with heart and an air of wisdom to bring her witch to life. One scene in particular with her character talking about family and what it means to be a parent is crushing, and is far beyond what this movie deserves. But then, the movie has their characters regularly banter with one another, and while this does serve a point for their character dynamic later in the film, the humor employed here is really quite dull.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is definitely geared towards young children, rather than a more fun-for-the-whole-family approach. It’s definitely effective enough to occupy a child for about an hour and a half, but if you’re a parent, you should consider using this movie as an opportunity to teach your kids to be brave enough to watch movies in the cinema without you.