Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is 10-years old and is being sent to live with an uncle in Michigan after the death of his parents in a car crash. That uncle, his mother’s brother, is Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), an unusual man living in an unusual house. The old Victorian-looking home is filled with dusty books, stuffed animals and clocks. Clocks of every type and style are on the walls, on tables and standing on the floor. Jonathan introduces Lewis to Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). While Jonathon and Mrs. Zimmerman are friends they insult each other almost constantly. Lewis misses his parents a great deal but especially his mother (Lorenza Izzo). She appears to him in his bedroom and comforts him. Lewis struggles to make friends in his new school with only Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) paying him any mind. Tarby is running for class president. Lewis notices things around his new home are odd: Things move on their own, a stained-glass window changes scene from one moment to the next and there are sounds late at night. Investigating these sounds, Lewis finds his uncle searching for something through the house. Lewis finds it all very strange and confronts his uncle. Jonathan admits to Lewis he’s a warlock and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch. The home is filled with magical things. It used to be the home of a powerful warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Isaac died the year before and Jonathan says he hid a ticking clock somewhere inside the walls of the house to drive Jonathan crazy. Jonathan wanders the halls at night looking for the clock to remove it, even taking an ax to the walls to find it. Jonathan isn’t telling Lewis everything about the house or Izard but, after Lewis pesters him, he is teaching the boy the ways of magic and that he must find his own style before any spell he casts will be successful. Lewis had better be a quick study as an evil force is coming and looking to exact its revenge on the world.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is based on a 1973 book of the same name by author John Bellairs. Fans of the book will find a fair amount of the story has been changed to provide a more cinematic plot and a definitive ending. It has all the elements of a new magical franchise for children and adults as the action is never too graphic and the scares are relatively mild, but the characters are interesting, and the story has moments of real tension and excitement. Sadly, the film also has some real problems that drag it down to very average.
My first issue is the pacing. Director Eli Roth, better known for his gore-filled horror films like “Cabin Fever” and the “Hostel” movies, doesn’t seem to know how a story that isn’t filled with graphic deaths should be told. While we get bits and pieces of backstory and plot scattered about in the parts of the film that aren’t the magic action scenes, much of this time is wasted with filler and fluff that doesn’t amount to anything. Tidbits of story are dropped like crumbs yet never go anywhere. Valuable clues as to the history of some characters is practically hidden and never expanded upon.
Second, the script from Eric Kripke doesn’t mind taking the long way around to get to a point. A couple of scenes with Lewis in his new school feel unnecessary as they don’t move the story forward. A friend that becomes a bully and a bad influence felt like a red herring as it is easy to interpret it as a magical deception that winds up being nothing more than the cruelty of adolescence. We are also treated to essentially the same events multiple times. This again feels like filler. The running time of 105 minutes feels far longer.
The world building in “The House with a Clock in its Walls” could use a bit of refinement as well. There’s no history of the magical world other than the immediate events that set the story in motion. We don’t know how Jonathon came to learn magic. Did he have a teacher? Did he join a coven? Is he self-taught? The same questions apply to Mrs. Zimmerman. We only have a few suggestions of her past and know she has dealt with the pain of loss like Lewis. Again, we don’t get much in the way of details. We know each character has suffered similar emotional pain, but that never gets explored in any way. Perhaps the source material was thin on this background or it was cut for time; however, I think it would have connected us more with the characters if we had known a bit more about them. We could have better understood why these three very different people would make their own kind of family.
All that said, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” has some moments of wonder and joy. Most of those come from Cate Blanchett’s Mrs. Zimmerman. Blanchett plays Zimmerman with a twinkle in her eye. She knows this is all bizarre and wonderous and loves every moment of it. Even when things get dangerous she manages to bring a bit of fun to it all. Blanchett has the best scenes with young Owen Vaccaro as Lewis. She emits a motherly presence around the boy and wants to protect him from both the dangers of magic and his uncle. I would have liked for Blanchett to get more screen time and more to do than just support Jonathon.
Owen Vaccaro is terrific as Lewis. Able to handle the scenes were Lewis is more awkward as well as the emotional scenes where he shows just how much the character hurts from the loss of his parents. We also see Lewis begin to grow and gain confidence as he studies and learns more about magic. Being that this is a kid-friendly movie, Lewis is on a path to be the hero of the story and Vaccaro is up to the challenge of showing the growth of his character. From timid and awkward to a brave hero, the journey of Lewis is believable thanks to Owen Vaccaro’s talent.
Jack Black is a bit of a wild card in the movie. Many times, I’ve considered Black to be best viewed in small doses: Better as a supporting character than a leading man. He always seems to be trying too hard. However, in “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” Black seems to be hardly trying at all. We get a few flashes of his usual antics, like the wicked grin and the sudden yelling of a line to dismiss a character, but this time he seems to be much more reined in. I’m not sure if he just didn’t feel like turning his character up to 11 or if director Eli Roth was putting the brakes on his performance. Either way, Black is almost subdued as Jonathon and that doesn’t help the film with its pacing issue.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is rated PG for rude humor, language, thematic elements, scary images, some action and sorcery. The rude humor is mostly derived from a topiary griffin that farts and poops leaves as a running joke. There are mummified hands, stuffed animals and haunted house characters scattered throughout the house. One character looks like a zombie with grey skin, bits of flesh falling off and bloodshot eyes. There are a few jump scares, but all are mild. Foul language is scattered and mild.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” has numerous problems from pacing to an overstuffed script to a lackluster Jack Black. It also has the wonderful Cate Blanchett, a new star in Owen Vaccaro and a magical universe that has more than a few similarities to the world of Harry Potter. Despite its weaknesses there’s a great deal to like about the movie. I enjoyed the wonderous and magical aspects and hope any future installments streamline the storytelling. Also, somebody give Jack Black a minimum of three cups of coffee before each shooting day to power up his performance.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” gets three stars out of five.
This week, four films want you to bring your eyes to your local multiplex and watch them closely. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
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