If you’re anything like me – generally unaware of children’s book series from before your birth – you probably saw the trailer for “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” and thought, “Ah, Jack Black in a spooky, zany PG-rated movie about magic? Must be the ‘Goosebumps’ sequel.”
Turns out that’s not the case at all. But if we’re being completely honest it just as well could have been.
Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Zimmerman, Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, Jack Black as Jonathan Barnavelt in “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” (Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC)
Black stars as Jonathan Barnavelt, an eccentric bachelor that brings his recently-orphaned nephew, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), to live with him in an old house that's even more bizarre than he is.
After seeing and hearing some out-of-the-ordinary things, Lewis discovers that there's more going inside the home than some squeaky floor boards. It turns out Jonathan and his bestie, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), have magical powers and the previous owner of the house – also magical – left behind a dastardly surprise that must be found.
A little skulduggery and necromancy later, and the trio finds themselves in a literal race against time to save the world.
There are quite a few things to like here: the story is generally light and breezy (some exceptions apply, see below); the moments of levity that are there don't drag the story to a halt; there's some really solid visual effects at work that give the impression that magic is present without making it completely unbelievable; and the narrative is pointed and concise, with very little filler – minus a bit of childish toilet humor, which works because, well, it's a movie for children.
You've also got Cate Blanchett being Cate Blanchett, and while Black isn't the world's greatest actor, he's certainly affable and a perfect fit for Jonathan.
Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black) looks for the incessant ticking in his magical home in “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” (Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC)
There are, however, a few scenes that will likely be a little too dark and intense for a typical PG crowd – a woman and her young daughter had to exit a couple of times, and some online assessments would have you believe that your child is going to start practicing the dark arts if you let them see this too early in their development.
It is dark and intense at points, but on my completely non-existent “Children’s Movie Trauma Meter,” I’d rate it somewhere above the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz,” but far below the death of Bambi’s mother. Generally speaking, it is pretty family friendly, but if you/your children are hypersensitive, this might not be the movie for you.
The thing that most impressed me with this movie was the direction of Eli Roth. Yes, THAT Eli Roth. The man who brought us solid (and gory) horror flicks like “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever,” and less solid (OK, awful, and gory) fare like “The Green Inferno,” not only made a kids movie, but he made a pretty decent kids movie.
That's a drastic turn to take, and I can't really think of anyone recently who's attempted it, much less pulled it off. Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (“Supernatural,” “Revolution”) keep the fun moments numerous, and the magical ones feel genuine (even though we know they're not); there are some more mature themes tossed in to keep older audiences vested; and there’s a couple of nice little twists thrown in that unless you know the source material, might actually catch you off guard.
Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has a lot of adjusting to do after moving in with his eccentric uncle in “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” (Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC).
Inevitably, there will be comparisons to “Goosebumps” due to Black's involvement in both, the similar themes and feel, and with the “Goosebumps” sequel coming soon. And I think it's a pretty fair comparison. This is probably the “better” movie, but not by a large margin and it’s far less enjoyable … at least for me having grown up around the “Goosebumps” books.
That said, if my history was with John Bellairs' book the movie is based on, or if I was a child now, I think I would feel differently. Most children and families are going to eat this movie up, and I wouldn't be surprised if in 20 years, those kids view it as their “Goonies.” (They'll be wrong, obviously, but there'll be some merit to their argument.)
★★★1/2 of ★★★★★