7 out of 10
Jack Black as Jonathan Barnavelt
Directed by Eli Roth
The House with a Clock in its Walls Review:
The House with a Clock in its Walls is unremarkable, undifferentiated kid-family fun that’s actually fun – which may be the most remarkable thing about it. It hits many of the same notes (make that all of the same notes) of similar films: the difficulty of losing family, the need to look below the surface when judging personal qualities, the requirement for self-belief to lead a balanced or successful (usually the same thing in Hollywood parlance) life. Plus over-the-top acting, a little bit of pandering and more body humor than even its target audience probably wants. The fact that it comes to us from a violence focused horror maestro and features one of our greatest living actresses doesn’t change anything, either. The reality of these kinds of films are immutable, like the rock of Gibraltar or one of Kubrick’s monolith’s, staring back at us from eternity and suggesting entropy is really just a cheap con.
This variation focuses on young Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccaro) an orphan who has been sent to live in a spooky house with his only living relative, his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Black). Except that Jonathan isn’t eccentric (well, not just eccentric) but is a practicing warlock and his house isn’t just spooky; it contains the hidden magical clock of an evil warlock (MacLachlan) which is slowly counting down to doomsday. Dealing with the pressures of middle school, adolescence and learning to be warlock, it is up to Lewis and his uncle – with the help of frost next door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) – to find the clock and stop its arms from moving before they usher in the end of the world.
Not that even the apocalypse could stop The House with a Clock in its Walls or any of its ilk from following through their predetermined routes. There will be bullies, awkwardness, and social anxiety not far removed from regular life and missing the dark violent descents of Stephen King or the true psychological pain of real bullying. There will be adults either so adult that they remain permanently removed from the world of the children (and thus unable to convey important information) or childlike they are too closely connected to the world of children (and thus unable to convey important information). There will be puzzles and clues needing to be figured out in order to find the hidden MacGuffin and there will be monsters with just enough danger to be an encumbrance but not enough to actually be scary. There will be broad performances and broader gags all winking and nudging and reminding, constantly reminding, this is ‘all for kids’ and forgetting how much kids hate to be reminded they are kids.
If House is not interested in re-inventing the clock, and it’s certainly not the first film to make that calculus, it is interested in building the best clock it can with the parts it’s got – which does tend to be the differentiator for these kind of things. Roth packs a lot of charm in between the genre requirements though he is helped out the most by having almost as good a cast as you can ask for. Not just in raw acting ability, which doesn’t always matter (see Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for how little that can get you), so much as an innate understanding of what these types of films need. Black in particular can do these in his sleep (and yet never seems to) and unleashes his full coterie of arched eyebrows, dramatic statements and arch responses. The fact that so much of that is aimed at (future Dame) Cate Blanchett is a strange state of affairs which almost never stops calling attention to itself and yet somehow never overcomes the film.
Within that reality it is to Vacarro’s credit that he’s never overwhelmed or forgotten but instead forges gamely ahead. It helps that Eric Kripke’s script (adapted from John Bellairs’ book) does its best to tie his inner life to the plot so that both are developed together, keeping him in the forefront at all times. That doesn’t keep it from having the drawback of a lot of these kinds of films – particularly in the humor department – which tends to devolve into an adults idea of what kids like as opposed to the inverse. It can lead to a lot of eye-rolling above a certain age limit but never with the air of cynicism many of these kinds of films have.
And if there is one saving grace The House with a Clock in its Walls has, its sincerity. No matter how rote it can be become it never gives the impression it doesn’t mean any of what it says. It may be just repeating what the guy next to it said but it’s doing it because it likes the words, not because it thinks someone else will.