Special Effects: B+
Fantasy stories about witches and warlocks aren’t exactly new, so it would be unfair to call The House with a Clock in Its Walls a retread of, say, the Harry Potter series. But in a world where Harry Potter exists, a movie like The House with a Clock in Its Walls still feels decidedly low-rent. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer; it’s also about an orphaned kid who realizes previously unknown magical potential; it feels like the start of an intended franchise.
One might wonder if the John Bellairs novel on which the movie is based feels low-rent. I never read it. But, it could hardly owe any debt to Harry Potter — which, it must be noted, was technically derivative itself, throughout the series; it was just better at adding a new, modern spin — as it was first published in 1973. This movie, though, as directed by Eli Roth, is the first-ever film adaptation, and having waited all this time, it does feel a bit like a cash-grab so late to the party that even the peak of early-21st-century movies with fantasy and magic has passed.
Roth is the director behind the first couple of films in the Hostel franchise, and he does bring a subtle undercurrent of horror in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s a rated-PG kind of horror, clearly meant for kids but kids old enough to handle a few jump-scares. I jumped pretty hard at least once. And that seems to be the niche Eli Roth is attempting to carve here: Harry Potter dipping his toes in the horror genre.
Alas, the story, at least as presented here, just isn’t that compelling. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has lost his parents to a car crash at the age of ten and is being sent to live with his next of kin, a heretofore estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who has a close but platonic relationship with his neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis learns quickly that Jonathan’s house is alive with its very own magical personality, and is also afflicted with a hexed clock in its walls left by Jonathan’s late magician partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Trouble brews when Lewis succumbs to peer pressure from a new friend at school and opens the locked cabinet he’s forbidden from opening. This is literally the single rule Unlce Jonathan imposes on him, but of course Lewis breaks it.
Much of what happens in this movie is due to characters refusing to be fully honest with each other about things. The story never gives any particularly plausible motivation for this caginess, except to contrive a story that winds up not being quite as exciting as it wants to be.
It doesn’t help that Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are so mismatched, have such little chemistry, that they almost seem like people from different movies. Blanchett is as great as ever, as it happens; she has a knack for intensifying her own charisma by being restrained. Jack Black is a different story, always just slightly over-acting and never quite believable in his delivery. This is surprising indeed, given how fantastically he played a teenage girl trapped in the video game avatar of a middle-aged mad in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He clearly can be a great actor, and has demonstrated as much many times over the past couple of decades. He just doesn’t manage it here.
There are also running gags in this movie which are simply dumb, such as the “topiary griffin” that power-poops leaves out of its ass. It’s well-rendered CGI whose impact is neutered by playing for easy, silly scatalogical laughs. Jonathan looks upon the collection of mechanical dummies in his house, which eventually come to life, and says “So creepy!” — several times. Duh? On the other hand, I’ll give this movie credit for its brief forays into memorable weirdness: it’s not every day you see Jack Black’s head on the body of a baby, which even pees. Such an example is the exception that proves the rule, though: this movie hints at a direction that could truly set itself apart, but then never truly commits to it. A scene in which our heroes battle a yard full of living jack-o-lanterns could have been something far better executed than the silly farce of a scene Eli Roth makes it here.
The special effects are arguably the best thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it’s never showy. There’s a pretty fantastic scene in which celestial bodies and stars are conjured into the air over the house’s large backyard, complete with the topiary griffin batting at the stars like any cat would, and it is all too brief. So here we end up with a movie not great enough to sing its praises; not bad enough to complain much about. It’s just . . . fine. But unless you’re a fanatic for all-things magic, then why bother?