The House with the Clock in its Walls.
Starring Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic
Often associated with the sick and twisted, director (and actor) Eli Roth (“Death Wish”, “Hostel”) trades guts and gore for family friendly entertainment with The House with a Clock in its Walls. When the story isn’t trying to be America’s version of Harry Potter (dead parents, magic, impending doom, talking furniture), it does offer some unexpected enjoyment to a genre that’s been handed over to superheroes. Black and Blanchett, both parents, have recently refocused their film careers toward a PG audience. The sarcasm between the adults its refreshing, the bullying element in every children’s story is getting old. ‘House’ is scary enough for younger kids, keeping their attention focused and their mouths shut, yet unpredictable enough that adults won’t be too bored.
Following the tragic death of his parents, 7th grader Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccaro) is bused off to New Zebedee, MI to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black), whom he’s never met. Jonathan Barnavelt is a warlock or a “boy witch” as Lewis correctly defines with his astute dictionary knowledge. His strange house is full of clocks and uncomfortable movement. “I see things out of the corner of my eye,” he confesses. Jonathan’s best friend Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett) is more nurturing, also dealing with magic and the dark arts. Lewis watches and listens as the two sneak around the mysterious house, as if they are looking for something. Lewis’ mother appears in his dreams, telling him he is in danger.
Roth is certainly a different eye on a familiar genre, but in the end doesn’t do enough to keep this adaptation out of familiar territory.
We’ve seen Jack Black play this role before, he’s great for kids and it’s very similar to what he did last year in the first Goosebumps feature film. Black opted for this Bumps-like rendition instead of appearing in the R.L. Stine sequel debuting later this year. Blanchett, who has been villainous in Disney films Thor: Ragnarok and Cinderella lately, takes a different route here, despite continuing to make movies for younger audiences. The sarcasm between adults is the most rewarding element of the script. In one scene Jonathan refers to Florence as having hair like a Q-tip. The adult banter back and forth is when ‘House’ succeeds most. It’s adventure story and mystery plot are when the material gets clunky.
Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home, Mothers Day) is entertaining as the nerdy Lewis. His facial expressions and screams are full dedicated and well coached. Mid 90’s star Sunny Suljic is working double duty this fall, playing both the friend and the bully. His role as Tarby Corrigan is a bit unrealistic, a child his age could be so methodically manipulative. Deeper into the plot, when Kyle MacLachlan becomes the fully realized bad guy, that’s when ‘House’ becomes the most uninteresting for adult viewers. He looks like a cheap villain off a 90’s television show, delaying actions until the protagonists have time to foil his evil plan to destroy the human race. Young adult novels adapted into films seem to all follow the same structure, characterization and plotting. Roth is certainly a different eye on a familiar genre, but in the end doesn’t do enough to keep this adaptation out of familiar territory.
The sarcastic insults between Black and Blanchett are the films’ dependent highlights.