There are many things to like about this week’s amusing and affable horror-lite kids movie, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” For one, I like the title, and I appreciate the fact that the studio decided to keep it, despite its length, remaining true to the source material, a young adult mystery first published in 1973. The cast is good, and the film has a number of great moments. However, director Eli Roth (yes, that Eli Roth) does not appear to be able to keep himself from appealing to the basest instincts of his audience, be it his predilection for torture scenes (of which there are none in this film, don’t worry) or what he must consider the go-to for the elementary crowd, the poop joke.
Lewis Barnavelt is 13 and has just lost both his parents in an accident. In the wake of the tragedy, he is sent to live with his uncle in a small town called New Zebedee. That uncle, Jonathan, played by Jack Black, reveals himself to be decidedly odd and secretive. After spending some time with Uncle Jonathan and his best friend Mrs. Zimmerman, Lewis discovers that the two are, in fact, magicians — a witch and warlock, specifically. Not only that, but the house they live in is essentially alive, containing rooms full of magical creatures, some creepy and others cute, but all bizarre. Lewis also finds out that there is a clock built into the walls of the house, a clock with a nefarious purpose that no one knows.
Lewis may be making himself at home in his uncle’s large magical mansion, but school is another matter. As the new, weird kid, Lewis finds it difficult to make friends. However, a young politician in training takes an interest in our hero — whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the clock in the walls is ticking down to who knows what, and Lewis, Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathon have got to find it before it reaches midnight.
Reading descriptions and listening to my son, who just finished the book, it’s clear what a great movie this could have been. Though the film adds plenty of Jack Black-ian “Jumanji” / “Goosebumps” silliness, there is a seriously creepy story with nice gothic elements at the heart of it. Jack Black is pretty much playing his usual goofball, but Cate Blanchett, as Zimmerman, is a nice balance, and the two have great chemistry. As the ghoulish Isaac Izzard, Kyle Maclachlan could have been little more than a special effect, but instead the actor plays it deeper. I, for the most part, enjoyed both types of film “The House,” was trying to be, but I have to admit they didn’t mesh very well, and it shows a real lack of vision from Roth.
The lighter elements of the story are fun. The giant topiary griffin that acts like a giant housecoat, the lovable and loyal leather recliner that follows Lewis around the house, and the giant out-of-control serpent, William Snakespeare all add to a fun and frothy atmosphere reminiscent of early Harry Potter. Naturally, this is where the dumber aspects of the movie come in — the topiary has explosive indigestion and the jack-o’-lanterns vomit pumpkin guts all over everyone, but these are rare enough you can kind of tune them out. It’s hard, though, to reconcile the silly movie with one where Lewis is grieving his lost parents all the while being visited by a vision of his mother every night when he sleeps. The school scenes are hard because Lewis’ bullying feels real, and the darker aspects of the sorcery in the film go places I didn’t expect. The tonal shifts are not a deal breaker, but they’re annoying.
I’ll tell you what was very nearly a deal breaker, however. (The rest of this paragraph is spoiler heavy, so avoid if you want to go in fresh). The titular clock is a doomsday device, one specifically designed to turn back existence to the beginning of time. One of the ways this manifests during the film’s climactic battle is to have the power of the clock burst out on to Uncle Jonathan, as well as other townsfolk. The power rewinds the person it comes into contact with to a time when they were children. OK — that works. But for some reason, the power rewinds Jonathan to a freakish creature with Jack Black’s bearded head and and a naked baby body. It’s obviously meant to be a big laugh scene, but it’s disturbing and, worst of all, badly executed.
This is possibly the worst CGI I’ve ever scene, and I’m including the previous title holder, “The Scorpion King” which featured a plastic-looking Dwayne Johnson grafted onto a scorpion’s body. The Jack Black baby is somehow idiotic, gross, and pathetic all at the same time, which only gets worse when the man-baby starts peeing. Rarely have I been so disappointed in a film, especially since I was really enjoying it up to this point. Had this happened in the first act, I might have walked out of the theater. As it is, it taints my enjoyment of an otherwise decent film.
If I could say one other thing — I hate, hate the advertising for this movie. What should have been fun, yet gothic horror is being touted as though it were another “Nanny McPhee” movie. What should have looked more like “Lemony Snicket” instead is all sparkles and glowing swooshes and bright colors. I mentioned it before, but this film practically screams, “If you like ‘Jumanji” and “Goosebumps” you’ll love this!” Well, I did like those movies, but I expected more from this one. Grade: C+ (That’s a whole letter grade for the man-baby).
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is rated PG-13 for goofy, lowbrow humor and a few well-crafted scares.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.