Jack Black is a very specific kind of actor these days. He’s like what Rosie O’Donnell and Robin Williams were in the 90s, an actor fully capable of taking on mature material but they were the go-to performers that children were clinging to when it came to live action and voiceovers for a time. Black has had somewhat of a career resurgence playing more family friendly roles in movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Ghoosebumps”. So it’s no surprise he’s at it again headlining the children’s fantasy film “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”. Based on the book of the same name by John Bellairs and directed by modern horror genre regular Eli Roth, usually known more for his graphic and violent films, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” challenges its director to take on a more family friendly approach while challenging Jack Black to offer something new with his shtick. So what is the end result, a child friendly mess with a mouthful of a name or an entertaining ride that does more than pander to the lowest common denominator of its target audience? Let’s see what this house is hiding shall we? This is my review of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” focuses on Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a precocious and unique 10-year-old who goes to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after the death of his parents. Jonathan lives in an odd home filled with spooky knickknacks and spends time with his eccentric and knowledgeable neighbor and good friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). Lewis tries to fit in at school and struggles to come to peace with the loss of his parents. He wanders around the house at night and discovers his uncle is exploring the home looking for something in the walls. Jonathan eventually confides in Lewis that he is a warlock, a male witch of sorts, and decides to teach Lewis how to use magic. He also reveals that the house was once owned by a powerful warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) who hid a clock in the walls of the house that could end the world if it’s not located in time. When Lewis inadvertently helps bring Isaac back to life he must team with his uncle and Florence to stop the warlock forcing the young boy to put his own magical abilities to the test.
It’s important to remember that this is a children’s film. Its target audience isn’t exactly demanding groundbreaking performances so noone can really be faulted for being lenient, especially me. However as I said in my intro one thing I specifically looked for in this movie is for Jack Black to offer something new and while he’s just as charming and fun as he usually is he plays the same old character he always plays just with a different model. As Jonathan, Jack Black is a bumbling warlock who underestimates his own magical abilities but he is determined to find the solution to Isaac’s ticking clock. Black is always a fun guy to watch when he’s in these kinds of movies, but he’s always the same guy. He’s the kid-friendly adult who blends immature comedy with slight overacting perfectly fitting of the target audience. While I can’t say I despised his performance (in fact he’s incredibly fun to watch) there’s nothing I haven’t seen before from Black here. I get it, he’s found a niche, but after a while the shtick gets old and I have to admit it’s starting to stale a bit.
On the other hand it’s nice to see Cate Blanchett take on a more kid-friendly role. Blanchett is an amazing actress but she’s not necessarily known for playing light-hearted characters. Sure she’s shown up in kid-friendly live action pieces before like “Cinderella” and “Thor: Ragnarok” but in both she was a dark and brooding character and her only truly notable voiceover performance was in “How to Train Your Dragon 2”. So this is arguably the first time she has dabbled in this kind of role, a heroic figure in a children’s live action movie. Honestly she excels as expected. She’s one of the best parts of the movie as Florence Zimmerman and proves to be a magical badass as she helps both Lewis and Jonathan in their adventure. She’s charming, elegant and smart and serves an important role in helping the two main characters bond. I’d like to see Blanchett embrace more roles like this. Her smile is infectious and she pulls off the “damaged individual afraid to use their powers again” archetype very well.
Of course the whole movie revolves around young Lewis Barnavelt, played by Owen Vaccaro, and while I give him credit for pulling off the unique and quirky personality traits of his character I do feel like Lewis is a bit underdeveloped. Vaccaro does enough to offer great personality and defining characteristics but not enough to allow his character to stand on his own. Lewis is a bit bland to be honest but Vaccaro is a young actor with a lot of promise and I feel the issues I have with his character were more a product of the script and screenwriting than with his acting. He does a decent job and I’d be interested to see what else he’s capable of in the future.
Finally we have the villains, played by Kyle MacLachan and Renée Elise Goldsberry and I completely loved these bad guys. I’ll explain more about why soon but in terms of performances these villains are awesome. I felt like they were developed just enough for kids to understand while also making them more complex and MacLachlan in particular is a scene stealer. So while it’s not the most well rounded cast with its ups and downs I can safely conclude here that there’s enough for me to say I enjoyed the acting overall even if I wished there was a bit more substance and maybe a bit more creativity and inspiration in how some of these actors approached their roles.
To start “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a whole lot of fun from a family-friendly perspective. Yeah I gave Jack Black crap for sticking to the same old song and dance but you know if it worked once who’s to say it won’t again right? The movie has a nice family friendly fantasy flair that I will admit had me pretty engrossed in the whole experience. Despite its shortcomings it was easy for me to forgive the film for pandering to a lower age demographic because it doesn’t make the all too common mistake of questioning what kids are able to handle, at least not all the time. There are some delightfully spooky aspects to this film and the story contains some mature themes that I think are appropriate for a younger viewership to learn from. The main character loses his parents and deals with grief, the main villain features a makeup job that makes him truly creepy rather than dumbing down the scare factor and we have a plot that focuses on the end of days even referencing legendary demons like Azazel. It’s a nice mesh of adult concepts and child friendly wonder.
I especially loved how the villains are worked into this story. Isaac Izard might have limited screen time but we learn a lot about his backstory which works in an intriguing and humanizing motive for his destructive actions that questions the impact humanity is having on the world. Is he truly evil or is he actually on to something? It’s the kind of question some of the best villains draw from an audience and while Isaac won’t go down in history as one of cinema’s greatest seeing a kid-friendly villain embrace a controversial perspective on the world and even make a great case for why he may not be as crazy as others think is quite and interesting twist. A good kid’s movie forces the audience to learn something and open their mind from the experience and “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” does just that allowing children to mature through their viewing of the film as well as enjoying the wonder of the visuals and the simple humor of its charming leads.
I was actually very shocked that this movie came from director Eli Roth, the guy who gave us “Cabin Fever”, “Hostel” and “Green Inferno”. It’s the director’s first family-friendly movie and while I’m not always a fan of his work Roth does an incredible job here. He balances the right tone without completely surrendering his tendency to lean on the creep factor and fear inducing visuals. I have to say I was rather impressed and did not expect this kind of work for him. Maybe it’s because of his experience as a hard core horror director that he felt more comfortable working mature themes seamlessly into the film. Whether it’s part of the book or not it takes a good mind to make this work and Roth pulls it off. I also have to add that I loved the atmosphere and the visual aesthetic of the movie. There are some awesome set pieces and some great props that add to the look and feel of the film nicely. While the CGI isn’t especially convincing it works for the audience Roth was targeting and he uses it well to portray cartoonish but still delightfully spooky figures like living pumpkins and dolls that add to the movie’s charm. As a film made for kids and families “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” hits all the right notes, but there are some issues with it I found rather annoying.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I felt “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” was a fun a passable movie the one thing I didn’t exactly embrace was its sense of humor. I loved it when this movie went more to the dark and dramatic side while also keeping it light-hearted. However there are a lot of moments in this film where it stretches for a laugh and honestly it doesn’t really need too. There’s plenty of natural humor to go around. Unfortunately we get scattered poop jokes (including a literal pooping bush) and even a peeing scene which includes a disturbing visual of Jack Black that I won’t spoil here that left me wishing I could erase those images from my brain. These scenes just feel out of place. They’re not needed and add nothing to the film and the sad part is the movie keeps coming back to them essentially doing everything possible to force these jokes down our throats. Ironically while Eli Roth seemed to respect the maturity of the young audience with the inclusion of darker themes he underestimates their capacity to laugh at more casual jokes and adds in these odd forced moments of cliché potty humor that annoyed the heck out of me most of the time. A five or ten year old might enjoy it but that’s about it and they only enjoy because HEY LOOK IT’S A BUSH TAKING A POOP, IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE IT’S POOP…
I also felt the pacing was off. I know it’s a kids movie and they only have an attention span that lasts so long, but I felt like the film started off on rocky ground rushing through the opening meeting of uncle and nephew and the introduction of magic into the story. Eventually we are given more backstory and time to invest in the characters but it’s so late in the film that it makes it hard to truly care about these people and their struggles. I also didn’t really enjoy the conclusion where the villain’s humanity is all but ignored despite some great buildup and the final showdown devolves into odd shenanigans and an anticlimactic solution involving Lewis’ powers. Not to mention there are some unexplained elements of the story that are never resolved including both Lewis and Florence having issues with their powers and how and why they are all of a sudden able to utilize them again. We also have a secondary villain who is hiding in plain sight the whole movie and is working behind the scenes to influence Lewis but once you find out what they want and how they get it it’s extremely easy to think of a thousand other better plans they could have put into motion that would have given them what they wanted sooner. These are all simple things that detract from the story and while children may overlook them easily I couldn’t. They were flaws that created a rocky road for an otherwise smooth and enjoyable story. But, even the rockiest road is a fun drive when the scenery is nice and you’re traveling with people you enjoy right?
Of all the movies I’ve reviewed in 2018 so far I think “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” might be getting one of the most lenient grades I’ve turned out his year. Yes it has some major problems that annoyed the crap out of me. The pacing is odd, there’s several plot holes I can’t help but be frustrated by, and it leans way too much on simple poop jokes. However, this is a kids movie that, from a conceptual standpoint, fully respects what its target audience is and isn’t willing or able to deal with or comprehend. Having never read the book myself and coming in cold turkey concerning the context of the story I’ll say director Eli Roth impressed me with his balance of fun and cartoonish visuals appropriate for the demographic and a darker story and themes that are presented in a manner where kids can learn to understand and appreciate them on their own. The performances may not be the best but many of them are memorable in their own right and even Jack Black’s all-too-familiar child-friendly performance is fun even if it lacks any creativity or growth on his part as an actor. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” may not be perfect, but for what it is the movie is a delightful family fantasy perfect for those looking for a kid friendly Halloween-esqe film as fall starts to officially kick in. I can say I enjoyed it, I embraced it and it felt engaging and when a film has to pander to children while also trying to be interesting to adults that’s all you can really ask for at the end of the day.