When the parents of awkward preteen Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) are killed in an accident, his estranged uncle Johnathan (Jack Black) takes him in. Johnathan’s feisty older neighbor Ms. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) aids the boys when she can and always seems to have a fresh batch of cookies and a witty comeback! At his new school, Lewis finds himself bullied for being weird, but luckily is befriended by injured jock Tarby (Sunny Suljic) who tries to get him to be a little more normal. Living with Uncle Johnathan seems cool at first: he can eat whatever he wants, stay awake as late as he wants, and pretty much do anything he wants except go near an ominous locked cabinet… but then things start to get weird.
The furniture comes to life, the walls tick with the sounds of hidden gears, and it turns out Uncle Johnathan is in fact a Warlock and Ms. Zimmerman is a once-powerful witch! The house they’re living in once belonged to another warlock – Johnathon’s one-time friend Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) who turned evil and hid a clock somewhere in the house that is counting down to something terribly bad.
When I first saw the trailer for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, I was geeked. Granted, I’d never read the book by John Bellairs, but the trailer looked like so much fun, like Goosebumps mixed with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I just knew I’d love this movie so much, or wanted to love it. Unfortunately, I walked away sorely disappointed.
To start with good notes, my hat is off to production designer Jon Hutman (The Time Traveler’s Wife, 2017’s The Mummy,) who created such vivid and fun to look at sets. The rooms filled with unique (and often creepy) props was simply eye candy and I found myself wishing I could see still photographs of each location, if only so I could really appreciate the work and thought that went into creating each set.
I also feel that Cate Blanchett gave a great performance, and most of the best scenes in the film included her not only as a verbal sparring partner but also as a tortured soul with the most developed backstory of the bunch (not counting the antagonist).
Everything after that falls apart.
Young Owen Vaccaro was just a terrible actor. I knew it was going to be rough watching him when, about 5 minutes or so into the film, he has an over-the-top mess of a performance when he breaks down explaining the sentimentality of his magic 8-ball. It felt like I was watching a kid fake-cry… and was totally shocked when it turned out it was supposed to be legitimate crying. When I’m already rolling my eyes 5 minutes in, I know I’m in for a tough film.
Jack Black was over the top as well… but then again, it’s Jack Black. That’s basically expected of him at this point and the whole reason he does films like this to begin with. He’s not an actor to ever be taken seriously, and with roles like this he never will be. But, I’m sure he got enough of a cut of the movie’s $42M budget not to really care if he’s considered a joke or not.
But director Eli Roth (known for ultra-violent films like Deathwish, The Green Inferno) should know better at this point in his career than to hire a kid who can’t pull off the needed emotions when that kid is the focal point of the film. However, the film itself was never really that engaging and felt more like a ride at Universal Studios than a movie I could feel connected to.
Everything felt flat… like a children’s movie made by people who don’t know how to make a children’s movie. Again, no surprise as it was directed by Eli Roth and written by Eric Kripke (Boogeyman and Supernatural). I’m not really sure why Dreamworks felt people who work in very adult horror flicks would be the right fit for a children’s fantasy, but it was an epic fail.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls would have been better suited as a Redbox rental or even on Netflix than as a theatrical release. Frankly, I’m confused at how it managed to get past test audiences. The stakes are high, so that’s a plus, but as a movie it just felt lackluster and flat. Kids movies don’t have to be this disjointed to be enjoyable, and this is definitely a case when another Jack Black movie, Goosebumps, did everything better. On second thought, save your cash and just rent that instead!