As a kid I always loved this time of year, mainly because I loved horror themed television and movies. Halloween episodes were always great because it was horror catered for a younger audience. That worked so well for me because I got introduced to the thrills of the horror genre without being scarred from something too scary. The same was true for the Halloween family movies. They were both fun and scary and it created the perfect gateway into a genre that I would soon love. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the latest version of that type of film.
When Lewis moves in with his eccentric uncle Jonathan, he soon realizes that there is more to his uncle that meets the eye and much more to his uncle’s creepy house. Jonathan and his plutonic friend Florence Zimmerman introduce Lewis to the world of magic and teach him to be a warlock. Lewis quickly learns about the dark side of the magical world and has to work with his uncle to save the world. This is the perfect premise for a fantasy film for families. Kids love magic and they love the idea that there is a magical world that is a part of our world. We see this theme visited time and time again, and more often than not it works because we all want to believe there is more to this world that it appears. It is this premise that makes this movie work. When that is matched up with some solid actors you get a fun time and for most of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, that is exactly what you get, a fun time.
In order for family movies like this one to work, they have to be casted properly. It’s a tough to cast because success depends on reaching the entire family, so you need actors that will entertain kids and adults. Jack Black is the perfect actor for that role. He is silly enough to make kids laugh and can be charismatic enough to grab the adults. He has also excelled in these types of roles in the past and was great again here. Not only was he great, he was the best part of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Jonathan Barnavelt is an eccentric warlock with a lack of confidence and a lack of friends. Black brought this character to life in a fun and meaningful way. The first third of the movie is all world building and introducing Lewis, and the audience, to magic in this world. There is no better guide for that than Black. His facial expressions and fun personality lighten the mood and make the whole experience a lot of fun.
The same can be said for Cate Blanchett. She is most known for her dramatic performances, here she loosened up a bit and added to the fun. She had good chemistry with Black that showed in their banter and she also added credibility to the more emotional moments. An important area where the casting wasn’t so great was with Lewis. Owen Vaccaro played the young orphan and he lacked the charisma needed to make the performance work for me. He wasn’t a fun character to follow and as an audience proxy into the magical world there needs to be a connection between him and the audience that just didn’t seem to be there. The movie works even though he wasn’t great but it could have been much better if he was.
Another part of The House with a Clock in Its Walls that worked was the fantasy element. Director Eli Roth did a good job of building the magical world inside the house. He struck a good balance of the excitement of discovering magic and the fear that would come with that. There were moments of wonderment and horror. We know Roth can do horror that is what he is known for as a director. I was impressed how he was able to capture the wonder of discovering and learning magic. This was most noticeable in the solar system scene. It was a beautifully captured scene, with the solar system surrounding each of the characters and each character being in awe of what was happening. Roth was able to capture a few moments like that and when he did the movie was at it’s best.
The balance he was able to capture so well early on in the movie starts to fall apart a bit in the end. It started off great but stumbled to its conclusion. There were parts of the third act that were a little too much for a PG rated family movie. There were also screenplay issues in the third act. The story turns from this fun exploration in the world of magic and turns into this dark world saving adventure/horror that just doesn’t work. The conflict that drives the third act is a mess that doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t really provide much tension. There were some convenient moments and characters doing things that they had never done before. The resolution of the conflict was just as messy. It drug on longer than it should have and was unsatisfying. The end didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie, which was unfortunate because the beginning was very good but you leave feeling unsatisfied.
Overall The House with the Clock in Its Walls works in spite of its clunky conclusion. The first half of the movie is fun enough that the ending can be overlooked. This movie is for kids that were like me and are into horror. This is a good introduction into the genre with all the thrills and fun that horror fans love. It may have moments that are a bit too scary for some kids but overall the movie works. Jack Black is great and a lot of fun to watch. Cate Blanchett is also a lot of fun. All of the quirkiness of the house is a fun backdrop for the movie and the magical world that Roth presents is very interesting. This is a good family movie for this time of year and most importantly it will be fun for the whole family.
3 out of 5 stars
Director: Eli Roth Writer: Eric Kripke based on the novel by John Bellairs Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro & Kyle MacLachlan Release Date: September 21 Rated: PG Runtime: 1 hour and 44 minutes