Torture porn king Eli Roth takes a calculated turn away from his previous hardcore horror routes to bring the YA novel The House With A Clock in Its Walls to the big screen. The film does not feature any of his usual gory flourishes and is entirely safe for children to see and enjoy. Yet that safe approach is exactly what keeps the film from becoming something more inspired.
The House With A Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs is a 12 book series from the 1970s. While it predates both of these entities, it comes to screen like a comfortable blend of Goosebumps and Harry Potter. Young orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his uncle after his parents' untimely death. Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) happens to live in a magical house with his best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Jon is a budding warlock and Florence is a witch with a tragic past that has robbed her of her powers. Lewis has no idea what he gets himself into at first but quickly begins to train to become a warlock himself.
The house itself is the film's best creation, featuring some wonderfully spooky set designs and a sense of mystery around every corner. Armchairs come to life, stained glass windows animate scenes, and pumpkins come to life as Lewis gets acquainted with his new life. So how does the titular clock come into play? Well, there is a rather dull backstory involving Jon's magician partner (Kyle MacLachlan) who became a powerful and evil warlock after returning home from war. The whole thing is complicated and shows how much has been crammed into a short movie versus a series of novels. This is largely where the film missteps. The details of the film's magic and the world get reduced into a murky mess that never invites the audience in like say the Harry Potter films do.
Roth shows that he can make a visually rich film here but not one that is effective or scary. He cribs openly from Spielberg, whose Amblin Entertainment is behind the film, but is never capable of thrilling in the same ways. He is missing the sense of surprise here. The House With a Clock in Its Walls feels familiar to the point of boredom at times.
That isn't to say that a few moments don't work. There is a charming sequence where Lewis explores a magical recreation of the solar system. There is also a funny banter back and forth between Black and Blanchette. Both are enjoying themselves here and their chemistry gives the film life. I would also point out the young audience in attendance at the screening I went to enjoy the film immensely. They are likely to not notice the familiar plot elements as much and instead get a kick out of topiary lion farts and the immense amount of chocolate chip cookies on screen. The film's humor worked again and again on the intended audience,.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls is routine but ultimately fine family fare. I do think that kids of a certain age will find a great deal here to enjoy and those looking for a more kid-friendly version of Harry Potter should give it a try. Roth hasn't made a film this competent in some time and hopefully, he will continue to stretch as a director. With a more original screenplay, this could have been a real success.